What do Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, sprinters Sha’Carri Richardson and John Capel, snowboarder Ross Rebagliati, and dozens of other top athletes from the NHL, NBA, UFC and other elite sporting organizations have in common? They have all used marijuana and some have had their careers jeopardized by it.
We all know of marijuana’s wondrous medicinal properties but to many, it’s not clear how weed affects physical performance. Why is its use still mostly frowned upon in the sporting community? Does it have a detrimental or enhancing effect? Why would these world-renowned athletes even consider using cannabis? Let’s look at what science has to say about it.
Marijuana and doping
In 2021, track and field star Sha’Carri Richardson was disqualified from participating in the Tokyo Olympics when she tested positive for marijuana. It also got her a one-month suspension. But with weed already legal in most parts of the US, the ruling against Richardson was met with an uproar from her fellow athletes. Some thought that the decision was politically-motivated since the US has in the past called for heavier penalties against Russia for doping offenses.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) said that it was just following the rules of its parent organization, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) which considers marijuana and other cannabinoids as banned substances. Under WADA rules, athletes are prohibited from taking substances that meet two of these three criteria: pose a health risk, potentially enhancing performance, or violating “the spirit of sport.”
Since marijuana still has the stigma of being a “drug”, it can be argued that its use can be a violation of the “spirit of sport”, and it’s definitely something the Olympics would want to distance itself from. But what’s crazy is that according to a WADA-sponsored paper, cannabis meets all three criteria.
How does it impact performance?
The WADA lumps THC along with cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy, calling it a “substance of abuse”, which was one of the main points on the USADA’s official release on Richardson’s positive test. Yet the organization is known to be more lenient when it comes to alcohol which is certainly more addictive.
On its website, the USADA specifically says that marijuana is banned due to the risks posed by its short-term and long-term effects.
“In the short term, marijuana (specifically THC) causes a “high” that may include sedation, altered sense of awareness and time, changes in mood, impaired body movements and thinking, difficulty speaking or remembering, hallucinations, delusion, and psychosis. Long-term, chronic use of marijuana is associated with impaired thinking and memory, and even a loss of IQ among teenage users.
Other negative physical effects of smoking marijuana include dry mouth and throat, an increased resting heart rate, and the expansion of both lung passageways and blood vessels. Cannabis smoking can also produce rapid changes to heart rate, dizziness, and blood pressure.”
This is in line with one of WADA’s biggest arguments against marijuana, that it impairs the athlete’s judgment, motor coordination, and reaction time, making it dangerous for them to engage in sports. Of course, while this may be true for those who intentionally get high, the results of most studies on how marijuana use affects reaction times seem to be mixed.
It is highly doubtful that elite athletes would take something that decreases their performance, much less abuse it. Unless marijuana actually helps them perform better?
Enhance or enable?
There’s a growing number of athletes who are now open about their marijuana use and some even endorse it. But almost none are “stoners” in the traditional sense since they are aware that in excess and when misused, marijuana will impair their performance.
In fact, most athletes use cannabis for 3 main things: post-workout relaxation and recovery, pain relief, anxiety reduction and improvement of mental health. In fact, Richardson said that she used marijuana to deal with the pressure of competing and the death of her mother. Some like to use it right before their workouts, saying that it boosts their motivation and makes their sessions more enjoyable. The reason for this is that THC creates an artificial runner’s high, which makes you crave more of the feeling that you get from working out. Additionally, cannabinoids may play a role in helping the brain get over traumatic incidents that can hinder the athlete mentally.
Weed also makes endurance workouts more bearable since it not only helps decrease the pain you feel while working out, it also lessens your anxiety, gives you more focus and puts you in a better mood overall. Furthermore, there’s evidence that suggests that weed can help with exercise-induced asthma by relaxing the muscles in the lungs, enlarging the pathways.
Lastly, there’s no need to delve into how marijuana helps relieve pain and inflammation after a workout. While CBD alone can be used for post-workout recovery, a lot of athletes prefer the whole weed experience to take advantage of the “entourage effect” where CBD and THC increases each other’s effectiveness.
Frequently Asked Questions on Marijuana and Exercise Performance
Since marijuana intoxication is known to cause loss of motor control, slower reaction times and impair judgement, it is certainly not safe to do sports or workout while high. However, small doses may actually improve ones motivation and help reduce muscle pain, thus boosting one’s endurance.
Marijuana cannot be considered a performance enhancer in the same way steroids are. Rather, it can be thought of as a performance enabler since it is mainly used to aid recovery, manage pain, and help with mental stress.
Information on the benefits of taking marijuana for exercise performance are mostly anecdotal, but most athletes agree that a small dose before working out helps increase motivation and alleviates training anxiety. Taking marijuana after your workout will help relax your muscles, reduce pain and inflammation, and help you get better sleep.
Despite the WADA’s current rules, most experts seem to agree that cannabis is not a performance enhancer, at least not in the way steroids and stimulants are. Rather, it is more of a performance enabler, such that it helps the athlete recover from stresses and injuries of their activities. It also matters what kind of cannabis you take, how much and when you take it. If you take cannabis solely to improve your performance, you may want to choose a low THC strain, although it probably won’t hurt to use high-THC weed for recreational purposes as long as you do not engage in sports while intoxicated.
The way you take weed also matters. Even though some studies seem to point that pot smoking actually increases lung capacity, it is advisable for athletes to consume marijuana by vaping, edibles, or topicals. Experts also advise starting with a much smaller dose than your recreational usage and then go up in small increments until you find the right dosage that works for you.