Dear Swole Woman,
I hate working out but I love ingesting marijuana (in moderation). But for some reason, I can’t shake the feeling that exercising while high is cheating somehow. Where do you come down on this question? Is it OK to get high before working out? Is it dangerous? Am I going to fall in the lake while on my run? And if it is OK, can you recommend any particular strains to accompany my workout? Thanks and keep truckin’! —”High” feat. Elton John by Young Thug
This question arrived at a perfect confluence of events: legalization of cannabis in New York (let the restorative justice roll forever onward), and in the weeks just before 4/20. Therefore, not only am I able to answer this question scientifically and journalistically, but practically, with my own experience. That’s right: It was time for me to try having a little weed and lifting weights.
I have never been a huge weed person, and if I have some of anyone’s weed at a party, I’m extremely likely to get accidentally too high, become paranoid that everything I have ever done is embarrassing and stupid, and leave. For this reason, you will probably never see me burning down a whole joint. I far prefer a very mid, gentle experience at home. I like my little vape. I like to have a couple baby hits and just watch TV and drink water and eat ice cream and say the stupid thoughts that come to my head to a very limited audience I can trust. I enjoy these little pleasures.
Now, weed after working out is an unequivocal recommend: It makes you hungry, thirsty, and relaxed; eating, drinking water, and sleeping are incredible for recovery. But the first (reasonable) question, that the letter-writer didn’t ask but we should nonetheless address, might be “Isn’t getting high to work out at best just a waste of perfectly good weed?” How is weed, a peaceful and chill substance, not fundamentally opposed to working out, a task that requires energy and initiative?
Well, first, people who like weed find that it can make working out a better experience. A 2019 Nature survey found that about 70 percent of 600 cannabis users said cannabis made working out more enjoyable. Eight out of 10 cannabis users use weed before or after working out, and that it “helps them enjoy exercise more” (people who used weed worked out more for more time overall than people who didn’t) and improves their recovery.
“While many assume the former impedes the latter,” continued a press release, “the data suggest otherwise.”
Weed before working out is a different story than after, but less counterintuitive than you might think. The fact that people are bending over backward to try and make beer into a “recovery drink” suggests we need to legalize weed more widely and relieve the good people of this nation who are clearly struggling for some way to make working out actually fun.
One big reason I wanted to try weed before working out was that I get really in my head about what an overwhelming and lengthy task working out is and all the various ways I might not do it as well as I want to. I wondered if weed might help me get over that hump of trying to bargain my way out of each individual workout, and even, as some of the people above are saying, make the more chore-like parts of it more fun. A list from The Cut suggests that weed is actually a nice pairing with lots of mundane activities: going to the grocery store, personal finance, extracting ingrown pubic hairs, as well as doing hot yoga and gymnastics (!).
You may believe people who work out regularly have some sort of magic trick and we’re just doing it with a twinkle in our eyes and a song in our hearts; nothing could be further from the truth! I definitely have things I like about it, but especially when I feel unfocused in terms of what my overall goal is, individual workouts themselves can feel especially pointless. Maybe I’ll feel a little better after a workout, but I also think I feel fine now, and who am I to put myself through potentially unnecessary suffering?
Only 13 percent of ultrarunners used weed in 2015 (in part literally because running so much is boring, haha), but this stat was from a few years before the watershed legalization moment that’s now happening. A few years ago, there was a whole gym set to open, in San Francisco, of course, based around integrating weed into the pursuit of fitness, both during and after workouts. In a blow to the founders’ arguments that weed people are not lazy and that this was in fact a good idea, it never happened.
But our biology may be more adapted to weed plus working out than we might naturally think: we’ve known for a while the endocannabinoid system plays a role in an exercise high, but a study from March suggests our own natural cannabinoids is likely the exclusive cause of the runner’s high; rest in power the old god “endorphins.”
Still, as weed becomes more available and we are all supposed to exercise, I’ve wondered if there aren’t new ways to fit it into my overall regimen. There are a lot of hypotheticals and surveys out there, but I saw few documented anecdotal experiences of trying weed and working out. This meant that it fell to me.
Weed while working out: The methodology
The main goal here was to see if weed helped me both get started with the task of lifting, as well as enjoy lifting more. With the exception of one day, I would take some weed as close to starting my workout as possible, and then (ideally) get started and record all my observations. While lifting weights is usually my activity of choice, I worked running into this test for the sake of science. I tried vaping and lifting weights two different times, eating a delta 8 gummy and lifting weights, and eating a delta 8 gummy and going for a run.
The overwhelming concern about this experiment, of course, was that I would get too high and end up crushed under a lot of heavy weights. This would be both physically painful and emotionally too embarrassing to admit, to the point that if it happened I’d have to kill this whole column and potentially retire from society (a situation I’ve visualized very clearly for much less urgent reasons when I have had too much weed). For that reason, I didn’t do anything that would immediately endanger me due to lack of reflexes or focus: no maxing, no RPE 10s, really nothing higher than a soft RPE 8. No movements I haven’t tried before, and nothing too complex or demanding of balance.
Day 1: 12.5mg of Delta 8 gummy + lifting weights
Delta 8 is a form of THC derived from hemp that’s relatively new on the cannabis scene and federally legal (kind of), and I’m so far finding it a really pleasant experience. This is possibly because it’s just effectively a baby version of regular THC, but I find it has all of the euphoric and calming effects of regular edibles with very little of the impairment and zero risk of couch-lock.
For my first weed workout, I took my edible about 30 minutes before I intended to work out, and I could tell it kicked in because my face and arms got warm, and my anxious ruminations about working out melted away. I drifted outside to where my gym setup is, only to find out it was sort of hot out. I spent a few ponderous minutes changing into shorts after I’d already put shoes on, trying to solve the mystery of where my water bottle had gone, and then tried to go back outside to where my weights were, but without shoes.
After putting shoes on, I had a vague idea I would do deadlifts for sets of five to start, but I wasn’t really sure where I’d go after that. I realized this was the wrong time to leave myself a lot of decisions to be made in the moment. I hadn’t even decided what weights to use, a decision that requires math that I’m very used to doing, but not while high. This meant my sets were punctuated by a lot of standing motionless and staring at the various plates like I was trying to move them with my mind, lost in the deep philosophical inquiry required to figure out if I should lift 205 or 225 pounds. As I thought, I pulled out my bra to examine the inside lining for an embedded cat hair that was itching me… just a woman examining her boobs for all of the block to see.
I realized I put on the 10-pound weights when I meant to put on 25s, and only after I put a 25 on one side did I realize I forgot to take off the 10. As I rested between sets, peacefully watching the bird feeder, the cardinal who visits regularly showed up with a sparrow who is NOT his wife, the other cardinal. All of these things were happening, but I was deeply unconcerned as to what they all meant; my brain moved seamlessly between all of these subjects and studiously setting up behind the barbell to do more deadlifts.
During my workout, my partner texted me from Home Depot to ask about plants for our yard. I only got him three actual answers in the space of about an hour, one of them about 30 seconds before he walked back in the door. I often can’t think very much when I lift anyway, so I like to think this wasn’t wildly different from normal. But I was fairly deep into my body, and while I really struggled with having to make any small decision about which weight to use or even where to move a chair, as long as I knew what to do, I was the definition of flow state with all my dumb little tasks.
I had hoped for a little bit more of the focus and delight that weed is supposed to bring to the table, but I was mostly just relieved to not have dosed myself out of doing the thing entirely, which was priority one. For the delighted effect, I might have needed a bigger dose, or something a little more potent.
Day Two: 12.5mg Delta 8 gummy + running
Since I’ve been especially sedentary over the last year and cannabis seems to come highly recommended by runners especially, I decided to get a run in. This dose kicked in slower and lighter than before, possibly because my bite of gummy was a little smaller. But I took off toward a park I like to circle, sun shining, breeze blowing, weed lightening the plodding steps of someone who has logged many days of fewer than 100 steps in the last year and whose couch is now indented in the shape of her body.
My run was incredibly leisurely (actual 11-minute miles, with a long pause to stop at the basketball courts and smile beatifically at the people who have resumed playing after many months of cold and even more months of pandemic). While lots of creative types gush about all of their breakthroughs from running miles and miles, I tend to just ruminate. Sometimes that yields insight, but at what cost? But as someone who struggles to achieve “inner peace” and hates running in particular because I definitely didn’t need any more time to “think” or “reflect,” the weed did make my overall running headspace more present, and less judgmental on a meta-level of my own thoughts. I strongly prefer the total nervous system takeover of lifting, and maybe I don’t have a new theory of the universe afterward, but I didn’t think for a while during this run, and that’s a much bigger victory for my brain.
I flopped around the corners of the block that contains the park, strangely occupied by just the act of moving my feet. At one point I encountered a family interspersed across the sidewalk, and I physically waffled indecisively probably four times before picking the right way to go around them. I smiled and waved apologetically but not really because we are all just humans on this earth, each with our own flaws, and I honor their disorganized occupation of the sidewalk as they honor my apparent inability to run in a straight line.
I wished this dose had been a little higher just for my own curiosity, but I didn’t want to end up over-emboldened by my delta 8 and gunning through traffic while dodging cars. But I did end up feeling like I didn’t work out at all, perhaps speaking to the anti-inflammatory properties of weed. I also didn’t try that hard, a practice that also prevents inflammation.
Day 3: A couple hits of a low-temp vape, sativa-dominant strain + lifting weights
You asked specifically about strains, and they vary from state to state so it’s hard to recommend something specific, but obviously, this is not your moment for an ultra-relaxing weed. Your Leafly keywords are “energized,” “happy,” “euphoric,” “uplifted.” If you say these words to any budtender, they should be able to point you in a good direction.
I dosed up about 20 minutes before I started working out, and once again made the mistake of not fully deciding what to do beforehand, leaving a lot of decisions to someone who was equally happy to watch the birds and drink water. Eventually I buckled down and wrote out a fuck-around type of workout, where I tried to do a new type of squat I was so goofy at I literally laughed like an idiot. (I know I said no new movements, but this involved no weights and I can only do so much damage with my own body.) It was hard to concentrate on getting the hang of it, and my less-judgy attitude meant I accepted myself too much to really care if I was getting any better at it. But I felt much more dialed in on my bro-ier Romanian deadlifts and dumbbell rows. I lost count of my reps on more than a couple sets, but what are numbers when I have the feelings within my own body to go by?
The real key of weed before a workout is that it makes me less judgmental overall, and not feeling stupid is a key component of completing the working-out task. Who among us has not felt fundamentally stupid for trying “engage our core,” or target our triceps, or stick our butts out to properly use our hips during a Romanian deadlift? When I’ve been sober trying to do these things, I have at times felt like a huge joke and wannabe. (After years of doing it, I don’t have this problem anymore, but even months or weeks can be a long time to wait.) When I’m high, my fundamental purpose in the universe is connecting with my muscles and the feel of doing the movements more easily occupies my whole brain, like it’s a fun puzzle instead of a terrible chore. I really could have used this during the early months of the pandemic when I was working out at home and weed could have made three sets of 12 lunges per leg way less tedious.
The weed was also intensifying the satisfying feel of my muscles working, the way I imagine horses just feel generally. When I went harder on some sets, I was blessed with the feeling of “pump” that Arnold Schwarzenegger once so beautifully described in Pumping Iron (if you watch the video at work, turn it off before the 55 second mark because he suddenly blurts out something very graphic). Incidentally, Arnold also possibly invented weed for recovery.
After this workout, I actually didn’t really want it to end, so I tried yet another squat variation (flamingo squats) for a bunch of reps and then lay on the ground stretching and staring up at the ceiling of my tent for a while, just indulging my curiosity about how it felt to move all the different ways. My partner called out possibilities for what we can order for dinner from inside: “We could get a pasta and the pork chop, or we could get two pastas; we could even get three pastas.” Pause. “We could get four pastas, doesn’t matter!” (He was not high.) We got three pastas including a pesto ricotta ravioli and a cacio e pepe and I went absolutely to town.
Day 4: A couple hits of a mid-temp vape, sativa-dominant strain + lifting weights
On this day I tried something still a little different: I wanted to do some heavy squats that would have been risky to bring near any weed. I wrote out a plan that my dumb high self would be able to follow. (This obviously meant the weed couldn’t help me get to the working-out part of working out, so I negotiated that once I got to the weed part I could give up at any time.) I did my squats first, and then hit the vape right before my last backoff set, hoping to time it into the less-demanding part of my workout. The higher temperature should also mean it would hit a little harder
I had written a much longer workout than usual with more movements, to see if I would reach any kind of patience limit: step back lunges, lat pulldowns, good mornings, upright rows, even some planks, which I normally hate.
This was the best workout of them all, in part because by this time I felt reassured that I hadn’t hurt myself, and because I brought the weed in at the right phase. In that moment I experienced very profound clarity about the following thing that will shock absolutely no one: Weed really brings out the terribleness of making decisions, but it also brings out the wonderfulness of boring repetitive motions and anything to do with body sensations.
The music was hitting, and even though probably hundreds of people can literally see into my backyard, which is normally enough to shame me out of doing anything embarrassing, I was doing a lot of dancing. A lot of pointing. Between sets I became extremely invested in every song. My delight was at an 11. I can only explain it like this: You will do some moving and find out it feels good, and then you want to move in all the ways that might possibly feel good in case you might be missing out. It was literally raining, but because I was alive and accomplishing things and there isn’t a better feeling in the world.
Even though I lifted more weight than I had in a pretty long time, I was scarcely sore at all the next day and the day after. I know this isn’t science enough to prove anything about inflammation, but now it’s got me curious.
OK—in my experience, weed is not for all workouts, if for no other reason than if you start to second-guess whether you are too high to do something that’s hard, you might never stop, and you probably are. But overall, if I’m struggling with feeling overwhelmed or disconnected from working out, I would try it again. I didn’t have to actually try it to tell you this, but I wouldn’t necessarily do it if I was in any hurry; however, given my apparent strong propensity for a Snow-White-Seven-Dwarfs-whistle-while-you-work (a song I’m now convinced is about being high and doing chores) attitude, as long as I didn’t have to make any decisions, I got through all my sets much faster than I might have guessed. I also always enjoy the small relief from self-judgment that weed can provide, which I could see paying off in a huge way for anyone who feels self-conscious about working out generally.
Working out while high is especially, per your letter, not cheating. If it’s not cheating to be high while sitting on your couch relaxing, it’s not cheating to be high while working out. It would only be cheating if enjoying something more and allowing it to occupy maybe a little bit more of your time would be cheating. You might also think it was cheating if you believed the only way to deal with your shame or embarrassment or fear of judgment about working out was to grit through it (I’m always saying this is an issue worthy of therapy; it’s hard!), or if working out was actually only a method of torture to be endured and not something we all deserve to have a little fun with and even enjoy. Maybe this is the weed talking, but we all deserve to enjoy moving around, whether that is lifting, yoga, the dreaded cardio, or dancing and pointing to “Who I Smoke” by Spinabenz in the relative “privacy” of our backyards.
Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.