Marijuana is becoming legal in more and more American states. Following on legalization’s heels are people popularizing using marijuana for more and more interesting purposes. One of those is combining cannabis and exercise.
It’s a pairing that few people would have predicted. But it’s also one that increasing numbers of people are swearing by.
There are also growing numbers of cannabis gyms – where gym-goers can consume edibles, vape, or smoke before, during, or after exercise – and professional athletes who are advocating cannabis use for training.
But is working out after smoking weed something that might be for you? What does the science say about cannabis and exercise? Let’s find out.
Exercise is good for you
People who exercise regularly are more likely to experience anxiety and depression at a lower level of intensity. Running or working out may also be beneficial for preventing Parkinson’s Disease and other neurological issues. On a general level, people who exercise more also tend to experience less stress and have a better mood, cognitive performance, and self-esteem.
This all seems to be because exercise raises the metabolism and blood flow, encouraging new brain cells to form, other brain cells – including those associated with learning and memory – to experience changes, and certain chemicals to be released.
Exercise also causes endorphins to be released into the bloodstream, relieving pain and – for many years it was believed – causing the sensation known as “runner’s high”. Now though, it is believed that the cause of this euphoric condition is something else entirely.
What is runner’s high?
A “runner’s high” is an uplifting feeling of energy that a person can experience at the end of a long run, making them feel happy and joyful. Although research of forty years or so ago heavily implied that the effect was caused by endorphins in the bloodstream, more recent research shows this is not the case.
The endorphin solution was often called out for being strange as it would mean that the endorphins would have needed to cross the blood-brain barrier to have the effect they were supposed to. Now it seems that the runner’s high effect is instead being created by your body’s own endocannabinoids.
The endocannabinoid system is the same series of chemical “locks and keys” inside your body that accepts and reacts to the presence of the well-known cannabinoids in cannabis. Those are phytocannabinoids (cannabinoids from plants). But your body produces its own endocannabinoids (internal cannabinoids) too.
The endocannabinoid anandamide seems to be particularly good at dulling pain, lifting mood, and making bronchial tubes and blood vessels dilate. This is great for your athletic performance and general mood, as well as helping you to experience less physical pain and mental anxiety. It’s anandamide that research seems to show is responsible for the “runner’s high” effect.
Is weed good for working out? Can it create a “runner’s high”?
But what about combining weed and exercise? Is this a way to create another kind of “runner’s high”?
Well, the jury still seems to be out. Certainly, the “runner’s high” you can get from a long run and the “high” you get from using cannabis products seem to come from sources that are much more like each other than almost anyone ever expected.
Anecdotally, there are many people using marijuana and working out with good results or finding that it aids in their recovery times. Many people claim using marijuana makes running more interesting for them or eases the pain of long runs. Some say it helps them focus on their performance and run for longer.
Yet others find that smoking cannabis and then exercising doesn’t work for them, making them distracted or completely unable to perform athletically.
What does the science say?
Even before weed legalization started to gather ground in the US, many scientists were doing research on the effects of the two best-known cannabinoids in marijuana – THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). One of the questions they sought more enlightenment about was the effects of these cannabinoids on the body’s physical performance.
Interest in the question has only grown since at least one well-known athlete tested positive for marijuana use in recent years. Cannabis is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s watchlist. But does it actually help sporting performance? If it does, how does it work?
At least one major upcoming study – SPACE (Study on Physical Activity and Cannabis Effects) to be carried out by the University of Boulder, Colorado – is hoping to find out. Researchers here plan to have participants exercise and measure their vitals at the same time as answering questions.
By comparing how participants react during different sessions with and without cannabis, the SPACE researchers hope to gain more insight into how or if cannabis increases sporting performance.
Because the current state of play, where cannabis retains strong, sometimes stereotypical, associations with relaxation and inactivity yet is also increasingly used by people who claim it lets them do everything from their daily chores to sport better, is more than a little contradictory.
Marijuana and exercise – things to know
One thing is for sure – combining weed and working out seems to affect different people in different ways.
You might be one of those people for whom running while high is the best thing since sliced bread. Or you might find it a hindrance more than anything else.
Here are a few things to bear in mind when you are or considering working out on weed:
1) Don’t over-consume
One thing that almost everyone agrees on is that less is usually more when it comes to cannabis consumption levels and athletic activity.
Especially on your first time trying this out, you will want to keep your intake to a very low level.
2) Start soon but start slow
Another common error is to wait for the effects of the cannabis to begin before you start your workout. If you wait for those effects to kick in, you’re much more likely to not want to start at all. Get going as soon as you can after imbibing, but do so slowly.
This is another reason why if you’re going to experiment with running while high you should do so at a very low dose. You don’t want to be running along and then suddenly get hit by potent effects.
3) Cannabis can add interest to your route
One of the ways in which many people anecdotally describe cannabis adding value to their day is that it can make even mundane tasks like doing your laundry or other chores much more interesting.
The same seems to be true of the effect cannabis can have on you when running. It can make even neighbourhoods you’re very used to seeing very engaging – even engrossing. It can be a way to make a run out in nature all the more pleasant too.
Yet some people experimenting with running while high have commented this can reach the point where they slow down and stop running because everything is much more interesting!
This one probably hits different people differently and may vary depending on your route and mindset. It could be a benefit on one hand, but if it stops you running it could also be something to watch out for.
4) Remember direction-finding and where you are
Finding new things all the more interesting because of the combination of THC and working out is something that has taken some people trying the experience out by surprise, in that they end up somewhere they didn’t plan on and got more than a little lost, distracted, or confused.
This is worth bearing in mind if you’re not sure how the experience will affect you. You might not have any problems with this. On the other hand, better safe than sorry. Make sure you’ve got your smartphone or some other way of finding your way back home with you.
5) It might not help your athletic performance directly
Most people find – and it’s certainly scientifically the case – that marijuana increases their heart rate, reduces their cardiac output, and can make them feel sleepy.
This latter isn’t the case for all strains of cannabis or all people, but it’s also worth thinking about if you haven’t tried cannabis and exercise together before.
Where the benefits come in might be more on the pain reduction side of the equation, allowing people to run for longer than they ordinarily would be able to. This has been pointed out as a potential advantage for older runners in particular by one of the advisors to the University of Boulder SPACE study.
6) Watch out for your reaction time
You might also be aware that your reaction times and hand-eye coordination can be impaired when you’re under the influence of cannabis.
Watch out for signs, when crossing the street, for roots across the trail, and for uneven ground – all of which you might find yourself less swift to react to than you are normally.
7) If your motivation is low, this might be worth a try
Around 70% of respondents of a different University of Boulder study said that cannabis increased their enjoyment of exercise. Around half said it increased their motivation.
Even some people who’ve tried cannabis and exercise and found it’s not for them commented that they had a new sense of motivation and interest in formerly boring or mundane routes that they had thought they were bored of.
This effect – again, anecdotally – seems to have persisted after they decided they didn’t want to pursue marijuana and exercise as a thing, with the cannabis having already expanded their thoughts and experience after initial use.
Do cannabis and exercise go well together?
The answer to this question seems to be a very personal one. If you’re a certain sort of person, cannabis might end up being the best addition to your exercise regime ever. It might improve your motivation, reduce the pain you feel when running, and make even boring routes interesting again.
If you’re another sort of person though, it might make it difficult to run at all. Though there’s still a chance it might have some lingering benefit on your enjoyment of exercise.
While new research has shown that the classic natural “runner’s high” is caused by cannabinoids like those found in marijuana, not endorphins, there are currently only anecdotal links between some benefits of combining cannabis and exercise in terms of sporting performance.