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Marijuana for Performance & Recovery

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For the majority of athletes, steering clear of performance-enhancing drugs is a must. After all, does your performance really count if it was boosted by a substance? This is most people’s belief, but there are still many athletes who think otherwise. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is being stricter throughout the years with the banning of certain drugs and making sure athletes, especially Olympians, are punished for using them. This is a positive aspect of competitive sports in order to have the fairest results.

One substance that a great deal of athletes have been using to assist in some way before engaging in their sport is marijuana. WADA currently has cannabis on its prohibited list, but many are questioning why since this drug is a natural substance. Unfortunately whether a drug is natural or not is not the deciding factor. Marijuana meets the criteria for banned substances, which are performance-enhancement, actual or potential health risk, and violation of the spirit of the sport, since it has a negative reputation in many cultures. Research is ongoing, therefore there has not been conclusive evidence that this drug is safe for use in every individual.

How Does Marijuana Affect Performance?

The Good

The performance-enhancement aspect of the banning criteria is the part that is frequently questioned among many athletes. Although marijuana does not have primary boosting properties such as the anabolic abilities of steroids and growth hormone, it may assist performance with other secondary effects. Some athletes are using this drug to specifically help them during their sport, and others for the general effects for their daily lives such as relaxation and pain relief.

Sleep Aid

Studies have shown that the use of marijuana is helpful for sleep disturbances. Although these same studies have shown that there is a reduced REM, or deep sleep level, with the drug use, it may assist with falling asleep. Endurance athletes have been using marijuana the night before important races and events to help get to sleep earlier and feel more rested. The hardest side effect of using this drug as a sleep aid is the “hangover” one may experience the next morning. These symptoms may consist of fogginess, lethargy, and dehydration. For this reason alone, it may not be advisable to use this type of sleep aid the night before a big race. Limited research has shown that properly hydrating, eating healthy foods, and using the cleanest form of marijuana will decrease these symptoms.

Pain Reliever

Chronic pain that develops after an injury or surgery requires long-term pain management and may get significantly frustrating for most people. Unfortunately, there are many cases that end up relying on strong prescription pain medication to give them limited relief. Many of these prescription drugs may become highly addictive, such as opiates. A relatively more recent study evaluated the effects of utilizing cannabinoids, the main ingredient in medical marijuana, while taking opiates. The results showed a decrease in subjective pain levels without any other side effects. The aim of this study was to determine if using the marijuana ingredient would require a lower dosage of the opiates to achieve the same results. Further research is needed, but this may provide a positive outlook for those affected by prescription pain medication addiction, depending on the individual views towards marijuana itself.

There is no doubt that runners have pain, given they are constantly pounding on pavement or trails day after day. The use of marijuana for pain relief in runners and other endurance athletes is quite common. Small studies have shown that this drug may not actually lower the sensation of pain; rather it changes the emotional reaction to pain and makes it more tolerable. This may help when trying to race through some sore and achy muscles, or other not-so-serious chronic knee or back pains. The dangerous part about using marijuana for this reason is that it may cause an athlete to ignore more serious issues such as a new or old injury that may end up getting worse through the run.

The Bad

One reason many runners and other endurance athletes stay away from marijuana is due to the negative effects from smoking in general. We all know how terrible smoking is for our lungs, and runners understand they need to keep theirs as healthy as possible since breathing is an important component of being able to run. Well, many people are already aware of the different ways one can ingest marijuana, so there are other options such as edibles, vapors, oils, and topical ointments. Whichever you chose, it is highly important to understand that there are several negative effects from this drug and some are long-term.

Cardiovascular Problems

Running already increases heart rate. A part of endurance training is learning to control heart rate to remain on a lower end in order to last a long time before fatiguing. Well, marijuana is known to increase heart rate further, which means hitting that fatigued state sooner, and ultimately causing one to not last as long. For those individuals who already have heart problems, using this drug can increase the risk of having a heart attack.

Mental Side Effects

Studies have shown that prolonged use of marijuana can disrupt many important mental systems required for running and other sports. Decreased alertness and reaction time are two symptoms that will most definitely negatively impact racing. Impaired short-term memory is a common side effect of consistent cannabis use, which is a main reason why runners push through pain at times, since they won’t remember a recent history of injuries or pain associated with their sport. Although marijuana is known to help create a relaxed state, there have been studies that show the drug elicits an opposite reaction in some people, creating paranoia and increased anxiety.

More research needs to be done to evaluate how good or bad marijuana really is for athletes. If you are considering using this drug to assist with performance or recovery, it is important to understand the negative effects as well. Although forms of marijuana have been legalized in some parts of the country, it requires medical necessity. It may seem like a “natural” approach to performance enhancement, but nothing is more natural than a good training regimen, a whole foods diet, and proper sleep, which have all been shown to be true performance enhancers.


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  2. Kevin P. Hill, Matthew D. Palastro, Brian Johnson, and Joseph W. Ditre, Cannabis and Pain: A Clinical Review, Journal
  3. Shereif Rezkalla, MD, FACP, FACC, Rachel Stankowski, PhD, Robert A. Kloner, MD, PhD, FACC, Cardiovascular Effects of Marijuana, Journal
  4. Wayne D. Hall, Cannabis use and the Mental Health of Young People, Journal

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