Marijuana, A Performance Enhancing Drug?

By: Nick Hartmann

Looking at my slouched posture and spaghetti arms, you wouldn’t assume I hit the gym often.

I also have a bit of what some might call a stoner vibe. Unkempt tufts of hair skew my favorite beanie slightly toward the back of my head. I do not like to shave on a regular basis, certainly not daily. I am a monotone speaker. I love chips.

But, that’s where the stereotype ends, which is why when a clean-cut, gym rat, coworker of mine invited me to check out a local fitness center, I said yes. In reality, he told me I looked skinny and that I very much needed to lift with him after work the next day and I said “maybe,” then obliged a few days later.

The day came, and after work, we headed to the parking lot with our bags of essentials. I, of course, brought a change of clothes, shoes, a water bottle, etc. He drove us the ten minutes or so down the street, and after finding a spot to park, he reached in the backseat for his bag. I grabbed mine from between my feet and started to open the door.

“Hold up,” he said.

He brought the bag onto his lap and began to unzip it. Not thinking much of it, I turned my attention to the few pedestrians in the lot. Then I heard a lighter.

I instinctively turned my head back, and there he was, toking on a joint he seemingly produced from nowhere. Sensing my surprise, he exhaled and said “I like to get a little high before leg day. I feel like it gives me more energy and helps me focus.” He offered it to me. Again, I obliged.

I did the whole guest tour thing for the gym; I even tried a few exercises on the equipment and underwhelmed my coworker. What was significant for me that day was that I left with a piqued interest in how marijuana could be used as a performance enhancer by athletes, weight lifters, and endurance trainers.

I had heard a handful of stories over the years of professional athletes being reprimanded for “testing positive for marijuana,” but I had always assumed they were recreational users who were being punished for breaking the law. I never considered they were using cannabis for, perhaps, a bit more energy and focus.

I did my research and derived an aggregate answer we’ve all heard: Marijuana is still a Schedule I drug to the DEA, and testing its potential in many areas has been quite limited. Most answers regarding marijuana’s effect on performance are vague with variables surrounding the quantity, method of administration, gender, and general experience of the user as well as the difficulty of the kinetic task at hand. Despite this boring answer, there are some things we do know (cue teacher voice).

As humans, we already have cannabinoid receptors in our brains. It only makes sense that the cannabinoid THC has a high affinity to our processes and quickly attaches to these receptors, causing side effects in just a few minutes when smoked. Effects such as reduced anxiety and bronchodilation (increased airflow) can benefit athletes just before a workout or training session and instill more generalized feelings of aggression, energy, and confidence. This last trait is a common reason why many extreme sport athletes indulge before a terrifying feat. Again, keep in mind the variables, especially in regards to quantity; while a quick toke before shredding the gnar may smoke out the butterflies, one toke over the line may have you taking the lift back down.  

Just as our brain’s reaction to cannabinoids pre-game can give us some confidence and energy, it can also keep us going in the midst and well afterward. Once again, it’s the substance’s natural chemistry with our body that allows this reaction.

To put it simply, marijuana’s compounds mimic endorphins, relieving pain and acting as an anti-inflammatory to increase one’s threshold. This is perhaps the best way in which marijuana can be thought of as a performance enhancer. Endurance trainers and body builders serve to benefit the most from this side effect, as it is often compared to the natural “high” one feels when attempting to push through an arduous run or workout.

Concerning the body’s recovery after physical exertion, cannabis use can aid muscle relaxation and reduce pain. Some athletes and researchers have attributed a decrease in soreness to the use of marijuana as well. Not surprisingly, these reactions also mirror the body’s natural processes; anandamide, a cannabinoid naturally produced in the body, is often detected in the bloodstream after prolonged physical exercise and serves to assist the body in recovering post-workout.

At this point, you’re probably thinking this all sounds too good. There must be a catch somewhere, right? Kind of.

Along with those wonderful feelings of confidence, focus, energy, full lungs, and warm muscles are the adverse side effects of decreased motor coordination, impaired hand-eye coordination, increased heart rate, and distorted spatial perception. Thus, the variable involving the difficulty and danger of the task becomes highly relevant. If the task in question involves a movement or action that has been repeated innumerable times by the subject and poses little danger, then such side effects become less relevant, and the pros outweigh the cons.

If a novice skier thinks smoking a blunt before dropping down a double black diamond hill is a good idea (because, you know, the confidence factor), assure him or her that it is not.  

There are a lot of variables at play, and much more research into marijuana’s effect on the body is needed. However, my personal take is that cannabis is not a performance-enhancing drug in the traditional sense. Its positive impact on performance has a low ceiling. It should not be used before complex physical tasks, fast-paced decision-making actions or reflexes, high-level teamwork, or any novel routines, especially in high doses.

Alternatively, it can be beneficial before simple, familiar workout routines to which the body has grown accustomed. It can pump you up, knock the edge off, and help you relax afterward. When used responsibly, it has become a bit of an underground phenomenon among endurance trainers and bodybuilders as well as martial artists.

My coworker seemed pretty accustomed to toking before leg day, and for that, I’d say he was doing so responsibly. He was correct in believing it gave him more energy and focus. Given my performance that day, however, I think I need a few sober sessions first.