In 2013, Carolyn Ford* began to use marijuana to complement her distance running regimen. Ford, a 28-year-old public relations professional who lives in New York City, had just begun training for her first 100-mile ultramarathon, and found that the time spent on her feet was monotonous and uncomfortable. A typical training session could last as long as four or five hours, two days in a row. Weed, she thought, just might make the sessions more bearable.
“I would put on all of my running clothes,” she says, “and at the door I would take 3 or 4 gravity bong hits and then immediately start the run.” A self-described “anxious competitor,” Ford also says she had trouble processing food while running—a necessity when burning thousands of calories over the course of a single workout. In addition to calming her nerves, she says, cannabis gave her the appetite she needed to adequately fuel.
Athletes opening up about their relationship with weed is nothing new, of course. Everyone from professional hockey players to elite distance runners are increasingly touting the benefits of ingesting marijuana, more often to alleviate pain and improve focus than to gain much of an edge over the competition. As Ford puts it, “Running while stoned is therapeutic. It helps me concentrate on the small movements of my body and adapt accordingly to improve my form.” A 2016 study even found that marijuana was the second most used drug among athletes—not as a performance enhancer, but recreationally. (Alcohol was number one.)
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Doctors, however, are still reluctant to recommend that anyone supplement exercise with weed. For one thing, very little research has been done to support the benefits that many endurance athletes claim. Last year a review of 15 studies published over the past 40 years concluded that THC was not associated with any improvement in aerobic performance or strength, though it did help inhibit exercise-induced asthma in some people.
“We have seen increases in respiratory capacity, but the results are far from conclusive and tend to be small,” says Mitch Earleywine, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany and author of Understanding Marijuana. And while the impact on pain is well established, it’s very dependent on dose, he says. “Too little seems to be little help, and too much can actually make pain worse. I'm apprehensive about the idea of [using] an analgesic during sporting events simply because injured athletes [could] end up hurting themselves worse instead of stopping when they should.”
Some research has even concluded that THC impairs exercise, and that people show greater levels of fatigue while high, possibly due to an increase in heart rate, says Brook Henry, an assistant research scientist in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. Much of that research, however, is now decades old, Henry says, and is limited in scope. “All of these findings involve the administration of THC-containing cigarettes, but no papers, to my knowledge, have evaluated the efficacy of other cannabis constituents—such as cannabidiol (CBD). There’s an urgent need for more research in this field.”
In the meantime, such reservations on the part of the medical community won’t stop endurance athletes from continuing to experiment. Colorado-based ultrarunner Avery Collins, for instance, routinely competes in races that cover distances of 100 miles or more. Like Ford, he began to work THC into his training about four years ago, typically using edibles or occasional pulls from a vape pen that he’d carry on runs.
“The immediate difference I noticed was that I didn’t mind what speed I was going,” he says. “I was more fulfilled and happy with every run, and found that I just enjoyed every run much more.” Collins says he now supplements most of his runs with cannabis, as do most of the ultrarunners he knows personally. "I honestly cant tell you the last time I met an ultrarunner who wasn't also a cannabis user," he says.
He urges anyone inclined to try it themselves, however, to keep the dosage small at first, stressing that it’s easy to overdo it.
“I’ve taken too much, and I sat on the couch for hours,” he says. “That’s torture for me.”
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