bout halfway through a 50-mile ultramarathon is when Herb Green says he starts to feel achy and tired. It’s no wonder; at 60, he’s completed more than two dozen extreme endurance events, and he’s a competitive distance swimmer on the side.
When the pain starts at this halfway point, Green says he sometimes deals with it by listening to music or popping some ibuprofen or acetaminophen. But music alone doesn’t always cut it for him, and the pills wear off in about an hour and could damage his liver and kidneys if he takes them too often.
So Green does what a surprising number of athletes have quietly been doing for some time now, according to an eye-opening new survey: He takes a hit of marijuana.
“I kind of hold out till I need the distraction,” says Green, who says he frequently downs marijuana edibles during ultra runs. “Pair it with music and it’s even better, and it’s much longer lasting than ibuprofen. You stop thinking about how sore everything is.”
(Green is not using his real name since cannabis has not been legalized for recreational use in his state.)
A new survey conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder exposes the extent of the long-covert connection between marijuana and exercise. It found that 82% of marijuana consumers in states where cannabis is legal use it within one hour before or four hours after working out.
Athletes say the drug and its various offshoots can suppress nausea, ease anxiety, enhance mood, diminish pain and inflammation, and reduce boredom. Nearly 80% of the 600 marijuana users who responded to the CU Boulder survey said they believe it speeds recovery, 70% said it makes their workouts more enjoyable, and more than half shared that it improves their motivation.
“When you see cannabis in movies, it’s a 22-year-old kid on the couch playing video games. With the diversity of users that comes with legalization, that’s a stereotype that isn’t accurate anymore, if it ever was.”
“It was surprising to see that’s what people said,” says Angela Bryan, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder’s Institute for Cognitive Science and the survey’s principal author. “Not only do they use it immediately before or after they exercise, but they’re perceiving these positive impacts.”
Whether or not those positive benefits are real isn’t reliably known, due to federal restrictions on research into the actual physiological effects of marijuana use. It’s worth noting that the nine states (plus the District of Columbia) where recreational marijuana has been legalized — and where the survey respondents lived — are already among the nation’s most physically active, including California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington.
But the findings contradict the long-held pop-culture image of the sedentary stoner. In fact, what prompted the survey in the first place was concern that growing marijuana use could worsen obesity and other health problems caused by inactivity, Bryan says. Yet it turned out that the respondents who said they use marijuana also exercise 43 minutes more per week than people in the survey who don’t use cannabis.
“When you see cannabis in movies, it’s a 22-year-old kid on the couch playing video games,” Bryan says. “With the diversity of users that comes with legalization, that’s a stereotype that isn’t accurate anymore, if it ever was.”
Nancy Whiteman, founder and CEO of Wana Brands, a Colorado company that makes cannabis-infused products, says she is aggressively recruiting athletes to endorse them.
“There is maybe an old perception of cannabis users that they’re — quote, unquote — stoners, lying around eating Doritos,” she says. “If you look at the market research, cannabis users are active. They’re using cannabis for sleep. They’re using it for anxiety. They’re using it for managing pain.”
What little scientific research exists so far suggests that there are therapeutic benefits from marijuana. Cannabis can reduce pain and create something similar to a runner’s high, according to a paper also produced at CU Boulder and published in the journal Sports Medicine. The most comprehensive study of this, conducted in 2006 in Switzerland, concluded that marijuana can also improve sleep, help athletes relax, and heighten sensory perception. Smoking pot did not impair lung function and even incrementally improved it, another study found.
But other research shows that using weed can slow reflexes for some people and that prolonged use can increaseanxiety, paranoia, and fatigue. Even among the survey respondents, fewer than four in 10 went so far as to say that marijuana improved their performance.
Not many athletes have come out as marijuana users. Green doesn’t tell other people that he uses pot. “It’s not something I would advertise widely,” he says of his penchant for edibles during ultra runs and before his swimming competitions. “Some of my running friends know, but it’s not something I share with my children or even my wife. I’ve been aware that there is sort of a subculture of ultrarunners who use it, but I think people are still reluctant to be open about it because of the stigma and the legal penalties in many places.”
That perception is beginning to change. A growing number of athletes are piling onto the “cannathlete” movement. Former NBA player Cliff Robinson sells a line of cannabis wellness products under the Uncle Cliffy brand. Snowboarder Ross Rebagliati, who was briefly stripped of his Olympic gold medal when he tested positive for marijuana, founded a medical marijuana business in his native Canada. Former mixed martial arts champion and comedian Joe Rogan is also an outspoken marijuana activist. “I get messages from people all the time that say, ‘Dude, I thought I was a loser for smoking pot before working out, but I’ve had some of my best workouts ever,” Rogan has told listeners to his podcast. Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr and former player and coach Phil Jackson, who share a history of painful back problems, both acknowledge they’ve used marijuana. So do 89% of NFL players, estimates Martellus Bennett, who retired from the league last year.
The growing number of baby boomers — who, like Green, are staying active much later in life than previous generations — are also driving this momentum. In a separate and still-unreleased survey of athletes ages 60 and older, CU Boulder scientists found that 17% of them say they use cannabis.
There’s even a new series of athletic competitions called the Civilized Games — formerly the 420 Games — that combine marijuana and sports. A gym near Denver called Break the Stigma Fitness used to offer exercise classes that began and ended with members using marijuana for pain management, muscle recovery, and anxiety before and after workouts. Until it was shut down because of licensing issues, the gym “helped people understand that they’re not the only ones doing this,” says founder Jennessa Lea. “Breaking that barrier down and allowing for people to see you don’t have to hide, it’s such an important part of this.”
“Why take something to ameliorate the pain when you’re entering a sport that’s painful by definition?”
Some athletes are beginning to team up with marijuana wholesalers and dispensaries. Ultramarathoner Avery Collins, who says he uses cannabis mostly after races to reduce pain and swelling, is sponsored by Colorado edibles producer Incredibles. Wana Brands is looking for professional cyclists, skiers, snowboarders, surfers, skateboarders, and even golfers to sponsor, Whiteman says, and has already signed former bodybuilder and distance runner Flavie Dokken. An Army veteran who has suffered with stress fractures, Dokken says she has “pretty much experienced the full spectrum of the reasons for using” marijuana, from recreation to recovery and as a tool against nausea and for increased focus. “I use it for an extra boost the way you’d drink a cup of coffee in the morning” and after training to reduce joint pain. “You just get a better training the next day.”
But Dokken says she doesn’t use pot during competitions, since marijuana remains banned by every major professional league and amateur athletics association. Rules like those are not the only reasons other elite athletes have been shy about admitting they use marijuana, Dokken says. “They’re seeking mainstream-type sponsorships, and a lot of sponsors will not take on athletes that admit to partaking,” she says. “I can put myself in their shoes; you’ve got to be able to make a living.” Among road-running, triathlete, and cycling athletes in particular, she says, “marijuana use is very much hush-hush. It’s something that’s taboo” to talk about.
Some athletes actively oppose it. “People run for different reasons, but I look at running ultras as a way of facing reality, not escaping from it,” says Will Cooper, an ultrarunner and blogger from California. “Why take something to ameliorate the pain when you’re entering a sport that’s painful by definition?” After the race is a different story, Cooper says. “I’m not a purist,” he says. “If you use it to recover, if that’s really helpful, I don’t see a problem with that.”
When he’s on the trail, Green says he doesn’t spend time debating the risks or benefits of masking pain with pot. “I’m just out there for the fun and the camaraderie,” he says. “[Using marijuana] keeps me in the rhythm. If I stop to think about it, maybe the pain is still there. But I’m not dwelling on it. I’m just kind of grooving with being out in the woods.”