Josiah Hesse was a struggling journalist in Denver, dealing with personal issues as well as the economic difficulties of trying to break into a profession where opportunities are drying up. One night he accidentally overindulged in edibles when he got the urge to go for a run from his cabin far from the city. As he wrote in a 2018 article for Esquire, it was a transformative moment. He sprinted through the night, feeling completely freed and impervious.
“When I got home,” Hesse recalled, “I felt awash in satisfaction, having exorcised all the stress out of my mind and body. Not only was it a relieving purge of unwanted emotions, it was a hell of a lot of fun.”
Runner’s highs have long been recognized. Distance runners discuss a euphoric feeling that overtakes them when their bodies fully lock into the rhythm of the movement and they experience a complete mind-body connection. The high can last for hours, or sometimes even days, after an event.
Running while high has also long been a thing for endurance athletes. But until the past decade, when legalization started sweeping the country and social stigmas against consuming cannabis began to evaporate, it wasn’t talked about much, except in private conversations.
Arnold Schwarzenegger famously puffed on a joint in the 1977 docudrama “Pumping Iron,” but otherwise, athletes using marijuana was long viewed as a reason for disqualification.
In 1998, snowboarder Ross Rebagliati was briefly stripped of his Winter Olympics gold medal after testing positive for the plant. And the World Anti-Doping Agency, which provides the provisions used by many sporting events and organizations, lists cannabis as a performance-enhancing drug, although in recent years it has raised the prohibitive amount found in a competitor’s bloodstream to accommodate for recreational use off the field.
These days, however, some of the world’s top athletes don’t simply acknowledge using marijuana in their training, they advocate for it. Avery Collins, one of the world’s top ultramarathoners, is one of the most outspoken.
Making the greens greener
In a 2016 interview with the online publication Leafly, he said he first tried running stoned at the suggestion of his college roommate and found it to be an amazing experience.
“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.”
Discussing the benefits on his physical wellbeing during long training runs, he said, “With its various medicinal compounds, you can really cut down not only on the fatigue but you can calm the muscles and shoot down a lot of that inflammation.”
Jenn Shelton, one of the leading female ultra athletes, told the Wall Street Journal in 2015, “The person who is going to win an ultra is someone who can manage their pain, not puke and stay calm. Pot does all three of those things.”
And here in Alaska, Henry Bolanos, sales manager at Fairbanks manufacturer Good Titrations, is an advocate of blending cannabis with his athletic endeavors.
“I was very hesitant to work out after I had consumed cannabis at first,” he said. “I was worried I would look like a stereotypical stoner in the gym. Once I built my tolerance I tried my luck in a hot yoga class and have never looked back. I find the effects are that of a pre-work out. I can focus on the task at hand, I find muscle isolation much easier, and runs are a lot more fun when you are pondering how crazy it is we evolved to have such versatile bodies that can do anything with a little bit of work.”
Collins, Shelton, and Bolanos are part of a growing movement called CannAthletes, high-performance athletes who incorporate cannabis consumption as part of their training regimen. It’s come so far that a California company has trademarked the name. It’s one of the sponsors of the 420 Games, a stoner Olympics, so to speak, held annually in San Francisco since 2014. But the games aren’t a joke. They’re serious athletic competitions held in part to show that cannabis and sports aren’t just compatible, they’re complementary.
Of course, all of the claims are anecdotal. There hasn’t been much research on the topic, in part due to federal regulations on cannabis studies that still put extreme restrictions on what can be tested. But this is changing.
Angela Bryan, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and the Institute for Cognitive Science at University of Colorado Boulder, found a way of getting at least some data. She was lead author of a paper published last year in the journal Frontiers in Public Health which showed that 82% of cannabis users in states where consumption is legal claimed to use the plant in conjunction with exercise. “We were stunned it was that high,” she told her university’s online publication, CU Boulder Today.
The study found that use for recovery was a bit more common than before exercise, but it was high for both purposes. Seventy percent said they consume prior to working out, 77% do so afterward, and 67% said they do both. Of particular note, according to the article, was the finding that users were getting more exercise on average than nonusers, a contradiction to the popular stereotype of cannabis consumers as lazy.
Pain relief was a major reason cited for combining cannabis with exercise, and Bryan told CU Boulder Today that this could have positive longterm results.
“As we get older, exercise starts to hurt, and that is one reason older adults don’t exercise as much. If cannabis could ease pain and inflammation, helping older adults to be more active that could be another benefit.”
The effectiveness of cannabis in reducing pain and nausea, two of the most common ailments affecting über-athletes, has been documented in at least one study, but the understanding of how it does so has undergone a major shift in recent years.
Endocannabinoids instead of endorphins
A paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2015 challenged the long-held belief that runner’s highs are caused by endorphin releases. Conducted on mice, the authors found that “wheel running increases endocannabinoids and reduces both anxiety and sensation of pain in mice.”
“We thus show for the first time to our knowledge that cannabinoid receptors are crucial for main aspects of a runner’s high,” the authors stated.
“A class of chemicals your body produces, endocannabinoids, is related to cannabis, the active ingredient in marijuana,” Dr. Jeff Brown wrote in his 2015 book ” The Runner’s Brain. “
“Scientists believe the endocannabinoid anandamide has an especially potent ability to lift mood, dull pain, and dilate the blood vessels and bronchial tubes in the lungs. When your brain and body cells release enough of these happiness molecules, you get the rush of good feelings that lead to the runner’s high.”
Discussing her study in an article in Nature, the premier science journal, Bryan cautioned that a conclusive connection between cannabis and runner’s highs has not been found, but that it’s an area deserving of further research. She suggested a possible feedback loop between exercise and cannabis, and told the publication, “If something feels good, you’re going to want to do it again.”
Whitney Ogle, a physical therapist and cannabis researcher at Humboldt State University, has unpublished research cited by the same Nature article on people who combine exercise and weed. Her subjects listed increased focus as a benefit, but also mentioned instances of getting too high to keep going, an indication that overindulging can undo the positives. So the takeaway is, don’t get too stoned. Start with a low dose and find your comfort level.
This is advice echoed by Lauren Steinheimer in a 2015 Outside article. Another CannAthlete who has gone public, she discussed her own experiences and offered some tips. Be familiar with the strain you are using and know your line between comfortably numb and passed out stoned. Dosage is critical.
“Your ideal dosage should leave you feeling relaxed, but focused enough to tackle a long run on challenging terrain.” Run in locations you’re familiar with. And carry phone in case you do go exploring and get lost. Bring food (stoned or not, you need portable calories on a long haul). And most importantly, don’t drive while high. If you can’t depart directly from your home, arrange transportation. Along with the safety aspect, letting someone else do the driving after an endurance run is quite welcome.
There are medical considerations. Iñigo San Millán, Ph.D., director of sports performance at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told Shape Magazine in 2018 that after workout indulgence is unlikely to be problematic and certainly a safer relaxation drug than prescription sedatives. But he advises that during a run it could lead an individual to ignore warning signs that they’re overdoing it. And he does have concerns about undetected heart issues, saying “if you have some cardiac condition you’re not aware of, using marijuana could accelerate events.”
Gregory Gerdeman, an assistant professor of biology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, and a contributing author to “The Pot Book: A Complete Guide to Cannabis,” told Runner’s World in 2015 “There are cardiovascular effects, like increasing heart rate. These may be minimal in young athletes or those with tolerance, but should be considered seriously by anyone at risk for coronary heart disease. Plus, there have been some studies that (suggest) it influences blood flow to the brain, which can influence the risk of stroke.”
I have personal experience with this caused by an arrhythmia which is easily controlled by medication, but went undetected until the summer of 2000 when it caused me to pass out on a very lengthy bike ride and land in the hospital with two broken shoulders. So while I’ve trained for and run nearly 20 marathons in my life, I’m hesitant to use cannabis before engaging in heavy exercise. If you have any concerns in this area, get yourself checked.
Along with increasing heart rate, cannabis also reduces cardiac output, which isn’t good on race day. Dr. Jordan Tishler, who has studied cannabis and exercise, said it won’t help a runner reach peak performance in a race, but, he told Men’s Journal, “the time you would want to use cannabis is in the endurance training for those events, so not necessarily while you’re doing your sprints, but while you’re doing your long mileage building up to the marathon.”
Recovery is perhaps the best time to turn to cannabis. It reduces inflammation, acts as a pain reliever, and is a natural relaxant. San Millán told Shape that he suspects it’s a lot safer than prescription drugs like Ambien and Vicodin, while Dr. Junella Chin of MedLeafRX, who advocates for CBD as a go-to treatment, said in Men’s Journal that cannabis derivatives are preferable even to over-the-counter medicines.
“A lot of patients will take a pain reliever if they’re not interested in taking anything cannabis-related. But you must remember that those pain relievers have GI upsets, so anything, ibuprofen, those types of thing are not meant for chronic use. They’re only meant for an occasional use. And that’s when a lot of my patients will get acid reflux from it. They can get ulcers from it. Indigestion. There’s a lot of side effects with that. With CBD, there are no side effects (or very very rare side effects).”
Neither Avery Collins nor Jenn Shelton consume in advance of competitions, partly because they would be disqualified, but also because they are at their best fully sober. They also recognize that a careful balance needs to be maintained. Overdoing it can kill any desire to exercise and send a runner to the couch instead of the trail. This is what Cheryl Seligman of Berkeley reported in a 2017 Runner’s World article. She wasn’t able to stick with her training when stoned and chose to abandon the practice. But she admitted it was a lot of fun.
“Just as weed can make monotonous tasks like folding laundry or vacuuming seem engrossing,” Seligman wrote, “so too can it can turn a routine run into a Nintendo game—one starring a trepidatious jogger whose objective is to dodge eye contact with all fellow humans, and collect as many weird iPhone shots of flowers, bugs and strange dogs as she can.”
David James is a freelance writer in Fairbanks. Comments about this story? Email editor@AlaskaCannabist.com.