Weed is often mentioned in the same sentence as “doping” and is generally considered a performance enhancing drug.
If an athlete tests positive for cannabis, they can be suspended from their team or even dismissed from the league.
But, wait a minute!
Doesn’t cannabis leave people couch-locked? How can weed possibly be considered a performance enhancing drug?
The evidence is in (although quite limited), and there may be more to the claim than you would expect.
So, we set out to summarize the data and clarify once and for all if cannabis really is improving the performance of athletes and other competitors.
The Theory Behind Cannabis as a Performance Booster
Many cannabis consumers and marijuana detractors alike dismiss the idea of weed as a performance enhancing drug.
“Look how it reduces hand-eye coordination,” they say. Or, “I can hardly move when I’m high: how could that possibly improve performance?”
On the surface, it’s easy to dismiss the idea.
And, many organizations that list marijuana as a banned substance originally did so for alternate reasons. According to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), a substance can be considered for prohibition if it meets one of three criteria:
- It enhances (or has the potential to enhance) performance
- It represents a health risk (or potential health risk) to competitors
- It goes against the spirit of competition…
Many of the organizations that prohibit marijuana originally did so for health reasons or to protect the “spirit of competition” (a vague argument that could be used to ban almost anything).
It’s only recently that organizations have been able to point to studies that suggest marijuana may actually be enhancing competitor performance.
Before we get into specific studies (which are limited), let’s look at some of the benefits of cannabis—either recreational or medical—and the role they could play in exercise or competition.
Muscle relaxation & pain relief. Reduced pain can improve post-workout recovery and in-game performance. When athletes are able to push themselves harder for longer, they tend to see greater improvements than competitors who stick to shorter, less intense workouts.
Reduced anxiety & tension. Athletes can get in their own heads. A missed play or “spaghetti” (as some gamers call an unearned failure) can get in a competitor’s head. By reducing anxiety and tension, it’s easier to perform under pressure.
In the same way, cannabis can increase focus and risk-taking behavior, which allows athletes to push past fear and hesitation in competition.
Now, we all know that different strains of cannabis have different effects. A strain that makes me hungry for success might just make you hungry for snacks. And too much of any strain—however beneficial it might be when properly dosed—can reduce athletic performance.
So, what are the arguments (and evidence) against pot as a performance enhancer?
The Arguments & Evidence AGAINST Weed as a Performance Enhancer
A small flight simulation study in 1976 found that pilots (human pilots) are more likely to make major and minor errors after smoking active marijuana.
Another study found that cannabis reduced blood flow to the temporal lobe, an important area of the brain for tasks that require focus, could account for the “distractibility” many consumers experience. At the same time, however, blood flow increased to regions of the brain associated with decision-making, sensory perception, and emotion.
One of the problems with current research is that many studies use significant amounts of THC—up to 100mg—which doesn’t accurately mirror real world use in competitors. At those high levels, marijuana is likely to make complex tasks more difficult.
Simple tasks, however, can still be performed properly, according to another study.
What does this all mean?
Athletes from marathoners to mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters—and even video gamers—could see their performance decrease if they consume too much cannabis.
If you stick to right-size doses, though (and depending on the competition you are involved in), the benefits could be significant.
The Effects of Marijuana on Muscle Growth
A frequently referenced study shows that marijuana inhibits secretion of Growth Hormone (which would limit muscle growth). The problem with this study is that it gave participants 210mg of THC every day for 2 weeks—that’s far more cannabis than most recreational consumers are likely to get.
The study also fails to account for the role of CBD (with or without THC) on muscle growth. CBD has been shown to counteract several effects of THC, even reducing its potency when consumed, and additional research is being conducted to determine the role of CBD on muscle growth.
Finally, individuals who consume cannabis before working out may already be counteracting any negative effects on muscle growth by reducing pain, increasing focus, and pushing themselves harder for longer.
The Arguments & Evidence FOR Weed as a Performance Enhancer
Smaller doses of cannabis (10mg or less) can be used to reduce pain and increase focus on the task at hand while minimizing the negative effects of weed, like distractibility or lethargy.
Using cannabis to get a better night’s sleep could aid in recovery. And, improved focus on accomplishing tasks can remove distractions and allow athletes to perform at a higher level for longer.
Even pro-marijuana celebrity and mixed martial arts practitioner Joe Rogan came out in support of marijuana as a PED after Nick Diaz was suspended in Nevada for cannabis (though he later Tweeted that there is no scientific proof that marijuana is a PED).
“They don’t do it because it hurts them; they do it because it helps them.”
The question remains, do the athletic and competitive benefits of cannabis really outweigh the potential drawbacks?
There have only been 15 published studies in the past 10 years specifically on the effects of cannabis on athletic performance, and many of these studies use questionable quantities of THC (while completely ignoring CBD). As a result, current data fails to show any improvements in aerobic performance or strength.
But, the drug’s prevalence among athletes and competitors suggests otherwise. And, we can still piece together a few strong arguments for why weed can be regarded as a performance enhancing drug.
Research has revealed high levels of anandamide—a cannabinoid naturally produced by the body—in the bloodstream of people after exercise.
As it turns out, the “runner’s high” many endurance athletes and competitors experience isn’t so dissimilar from the high you get after smoking a joint or eating an edible. According to a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, “Exercise induces changes in mental status, particularly analgesia, sedation, anxiolysis, and a sense of wellbeing.”
The study goes on to note “An exercise induced altered state of consciousness has long been appreciated by endurance athletes.”
Cannabis, it would seem, allows athletes to trigger this “runner’s high” on demand.
Can this benefit be applied to other sports? Absolutely! Well… anecdotally, anyway.
Cleveland Browns wide receiver and NFL superstar (when he’s on the field) Josh Gordon famously said that he has never played a game sober prior to this past season. This sparked a common refrain among Browns fans and fantasy football players alike: “If he was that good high, imagine how great he’ll be sober!”
Except that isn’t necessarily the case. If cannabis was reducing stress, increasing pain tolerance, and improving focus, taking that away could actually have a negative effect on Gordon’s performance.
The same logic can be applied to professional video gamers, also known as eSports competitors.
Since scientific research into the effects of cannabis on gaming and other complex tasks are limited, Vice News contributor Jagger Gravning gathered a group of friends and conducted his own study.
The group sat down with procedurally generated video game Spelunky (among others). By sticking to games with randomly created elements and encounters, the participants couldn’t memorize levels as a way to improve scores on subsequent play-throughs.
After playing 4 different video games, the group of amateur scientists found their score while high was an average 1.87x better than their score while sober.
You can find a game-by-game breakdown of the results in the table below.
|Game||Sober Average||Stoned Average||Score Change When High|
|Super Hexagon||Dutch: 3.44 secs
Ben: 5.92 secs
Jagger: 4.03 secs
|Dutch: 5.19 secs
Ben: 6.38 secs
Jagger: 4.03 secs
|Tetris DS||Dutch: 40,338
|Pac-Man Championship Edition CX+||Dutch: 558,830
While scores didn’t improve in every test, the average score increase was almost double.
Apparently aware that competitors were turning to marijuana to reduce stress and improve focus, the eSports League (ESL), one of the largest video game competitions in the world, added cannabis in its list of banned substances in the past few years. The league did note, however, that the ban is only in place during the tournament: eSports athletes are still free to consume cannabis before or after the days of competition.
We have long known that cannabis carries many health benefits. And as the body of research continues to grow, we’re starting to see the role cannabis can play in competition—from video game tournaments to professional marathon runners and NFL athletes.
On Your Mark. Get Lit. Go!
It might be surprising, but the evidence for marijuana as an actual performance enhancing drug can’t be dismissed out of hand. While its ability to enhance performance may not be the reason it was originally prohibited in many sports, it could be the reason cannabis remains on the list of banned substances in professional competition.
Get more out of your next workout or gaming session with organic marijuana and clean-extracted cannabis oil from Karing Kind, Boulder’s first recreational marijuana dispensary.
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