Marathoners Swear Marijuana Improves Performance

By Joe Kukura |
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports has always been referred to as “doping”, but they don’t mean our kind of dope. They mean non-recreational drugs like steroids (baseball), human growth hormone (football), and eythropoietin (track & field, cycling). Certainly amphetamines were a popular means to a physical edge, starting from the 1936 Berlin Olympics all the way up to Major League Baseball in the 1970s.

But athletes generally have never considered recreational drugs to be performance-enhancing drugs. Particularly cannabis, with its supposed amotivational tendencies, inducement of the munchies, and penchant to make you stay home and watch cartoons.

Fast forward to 2015. A debate is now raging in the ultramarathon community that smoking cannabis might present an unfair competitive advantage. The Wall Street Journal reports that the pain-killing, anti-nausea effects of cannabis have some ultramarathoners toking up in order to get a leg up on the competition.

The Journal’s Frederick Dreier has more.

    The person who is going to win an ultra is someone who can manage their pain, not puke and stay calm,’ said veteran runner Jenn Shelton. ‘Pot does all three of those things.’ Shelton said she has trained with marijuana before, but she made a decision to never compete with the drug for ethical reasons, expressly because she believes it enhances performance.

As a reminder, let’s point out that the Wall Street Journal just uses “marijuana” and “enhances performance” in the same sentence. It’s not a stoner holding a lit joint in a Wall Street Journal hedcut pencil portrait, but it’s a pretty good start.

Cannabis comes up as a regular topic on ultramarathon message boards. The medical community has also weighed in via the peer-reviewed journal Nutrition & Metabolism in “The effects of caffeine, nicotine, ethanol, and tetrahydrocannabinol on exercise performance” (Pesta, D.H., et al, 2013). “When subjects were acutely given THC orally (215 µg/kg) acutely, significant deficits in general performance, standing steadiness, reaction time and psychomotor performance were observed over a 5 hour period post-ingestion,” the study says.

However, the authors also note that “use may be driven by the effects of relaxation, well-being and improved sleep quality. For example, it has been reported that relaxing, pleasure, and improved sleeping were the main motives to use cannabis with the rationale that adequate sleep and being relaxed before competition may lead to optimal performance.”

That’s exactly how a number of accomplished professional athletes are using cannabis in their regimens. UFC fighter Nick Diaz tested positive for cannabis this week.In recent years, swimmer Michael Phelps and NFL stars Marshawn Lynch and Santonio Holmes have either tested positive or been charged with possession. And you may have heard about the smoking habits of Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum.

These are elite athletes who are all-stars or gold medal winners in their respective sports. It’s probably true that cannabis does not help enhance performance in the heat of an actual competition, particularly if smoked. Smoking anything is generally harmful to your heart rate. But athletes who use cannabis edibles, balms or oils during their training or downtime regimens may find it helps them smoke the competition on game day.