Running high: Can cannabis help you become a better athlete?

Avery Collins is an ultra-marathon endurance athlete who uses cannabis. (@runninhigh/via Instagram)

Canadian Evergreen turned to Salina May, a Lethbridge-based cannabis writer with a degree in science to ask her how cannabis impacts running. Here’s what she found out:

Does cannabis help or hinder running performance?

As much as it would be helpful to get a straightforward yes or no on this, like with most things in life, the answer is “it depends.”

There are many benefits to using cannabis to enhance running performance and/or the running experience, but there are also drawbacks that for some may outweigh the overall benefits.

Multiple factors come into play, such as what kind of cannabis is used, which components are used

(such as CBD or THC or whole plant), and the method of consumption. In addition, it’s surprising on how cannabis affects individuals differently.

But in a time where cannabis is gaining increasing attention for use in running, with elite marathoners and ultramarathoners extolling the benefits of the plant, and cannabis running clubs popping up in LA, Austin, Denver, and Toronto, runners may be wondering if cannabis may help to enhance their own workouts, and are looking to make an informed choice on the matter.

There are two main benefits in cannabis use for runners, mental and physical.

On the mental side, cannabis increases relaxation, sensory awareness and focus.

Many runners claim it helps them to get into a flow state easier, where the runner is wholly engaged in the activity and aware of their body and surroundings. The breath falls into a natural rhythm, and the runner is fully absorbed in the activity. The enhancement of sensory awareness is an important part of this flow state, as many cannabis users can attest to experiencing more attention to detail and more interest in their surroundings and body sensations from using cannabis.

Much of this is due to the psychoactive effects of the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and other cannabinoids that act on the body’s natural endocannabinoid system, a communications system in the brain and body based on cannabinoid receptors accepting and transmitting messages that affect many bodily functions.

According to a piece in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the endocannabinoid system also plays a key role in running as internally produced cannabinoids are generated during running and are likely responsible for the famous “runner’s high”.

However, many other cannabinoid compounds present in cannabis also affect the endocannabinoid system besides THC, so in order to gain the full mental benefits a consideration may be to utilize whole cannabis products (i.e. whole flower for smoking or edibles) rather than extracted THC or CBD. Runners may want to experiment starting with small doses of each variation on cannabis/cannabinoids and increasing them gradually to find out which product works best for them.

CBD itself is much more important when it comes to the physical benefits of cannabis for runners. The main benefit of CBD for workouts seems to be in its anti-inflammatory properties. In an interview for Leafly, the well known ultramarathoner and cannabis user Avery Collins disclosed that he uses cannabis to improve his running recovery, “to cut down not only on the fatigue but you can calm the muscles and shoot down a lot of that inflammation.”

Studies have shown CBD to be effective for inhibiting inflammation and reducing the resulting pain, which has the potential to help runners recover from tough workouts quicker and more effectively. To gain these benefits, the CBD may be ingested or applied topically, and smoking CBD-rich cannabis flower through vaping or other smoking methods may also confer the anti-inflammatory benefits of the CBD.

Another important benefit of the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis and CBD is pain relief. Lowering inflammation decreases body pain, and cannabis or CBD can be a safe way for people to cope with that aspect of running. Many runners take pain medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen after a run or even pre-emptively before a run to prevent pain during and after the workout, and the regular use of these medications can cause problems with the stomach, kidneys, or liver, with many runners experiencing acid reflux or stomach ulcers from overuse of these painkillers. Using cannabis or CBD can reduce runner’s pain without these potential drawbacks.

There are, however, risks to using cannabis that also must be considered when deciding if using cannabis for running is right for you. Inhaling cannabis through combustion, such as smoking a pipe or in a joint, can cause lung irritation which may be a hindrance in running where deep breathing is so important.

This can be mitigated to an extent by vaping cannabis, which causes significantly less lung irritation, or by ingesting cannabis edibles or using topical CBD/THC.

Studies have also shown mixed results for the use of cannabis in relation to sleep. A 2017 literature review study published in Current Psychiatry Reports on cannabis and sleep indicated that cannabis may help people fall asleep faster and improve problems with insomnia and sleep apnea, but also that long-term cannabis use could have negative impacts on sleep quality.

Because sleep is so important to physical performance, runners should be aware of how regular long-term cannabis use may impact their sleep and resulting running performance. A final consideration for runners is that the use of cannabis and even CBD may not be allowed for official races and especially in professional running. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has cannabis on its prohibited substance list and the Canadian Anti-Doping Program (CADP) has rules around the use of both cannabis and CBD, although times are changing with the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) announcing recently (August 24, 2020) that they will no longer be testing student athletes for cannabis use.

Unfortunately due to stigma and the long term legal prohibition of cannabis, its use, benefits, and risks have not been given the attention it requires and deserves in medical science.

Further studies are required in many areas to understand the overall picture of how cannabis can benefit or hinder runners. Runners have to decide for themselves based on the best current available information whether cannabis is right for them.

There can be many physical and mental benefits that have the potential to enhance not only running performance but the whole running experience, and these must be weighed with the potential risks. Anecdotally, many runners love cannabis for not for performance, but for an enhanced running adventure, and many feel a heightened sense of a spiritual connection from combining running and cannabis, which is not to be overlooked as the potential to bring positive benefits to one’s experience.

In the words of Avery Collins speaking about his first time trying cannabis, “Everything was just so much more pretty. I didn’t think about anything else besides the run itself and what was going on at that moment. At the end of the day it makes the greens greener and the blues bluer”.