Evaluating Marijuana's Performance-Enhancing Effects in Sports

Athletes of all sports are finding benefits from cannabis, but endurance athletes, especially, are turning to the plant.
Athletes of all sports are finding benefits from cannabis, but endurance athletes, especially, are turning to the plant. Brandon Marshall
The conversation about cannabis and sports took a turn in July, after United States Olympic sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson tested positive for THC, resulting in her being cut from the national team and barred from competing in Tokyo. Not only did the no-pot policy seem arcane as states across the country legalize retail marijuana, but most of the public couldn't believe that cannabis, known more for giggles and munchies than athletic training, is listed by the World Anti-Doping Agency as a performance-enhancing drug.

Can cannabis actually help an athlete's performance?

Author (and former Westword contributor) Josiah Hesse doesn't think athletes who test positive for cannabis should be barred from their sport, and he also believes it's time to re-evaluate the way we feel about pot's relationship to exercise and training. An avid runner who likes to eat edibles before lacing up, Hesse discovered the benefits that cannabis can have to both running and recuperating several years ago, and he's been eating up information on the topic ever since.

Hesse's book on cannabis and athletes, Runner's High: How a Movement of Cannabis-Fueled Athletes Is Changing the Science of Sports, doesn't hit the shelves until September 14; we caught up with him for a preview on the plant's evolving place in an athlete's training arsenal, and where it fits in our perception of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) — two topics that he dissects thoroughly in Runner's High.

Westword: How has the way athletes used cannabis evolved as the country accepts it more?

Josiah Hesse: From my experience over the last couple years, it's a whole variety of ways. Cannabis is sort of like a Swiss Army knife of our biology, in that it affects so many different functions. In our endocannabinoid system, endogenous cannabinoids regulate so many bodily functions. It's something that if you can manipulate it with phytocannabinoids, which are in cannabis, there's an endless list of applications. People are using it for recovery, elasticity, sleep or stimulating appetite to eat a lot after a hard workout.

But so many people I talk to are using it in their training, particularly endurance athletes and bodybuilders. Some of them are using it in competition, which is controversial, because it is considered a performance-enhancing drug by a number of different testing agencies. There really isn't a facet of cannabis that isn't being applied in the biological sense; there isn't an area of the body that athletes run into for which cannabis doesn't have application.

Is cannabis a PED in all sports, or does it depend on which sport an athlete partakes in?

There's a lot of semantics to unpack with the term "performance-enhancing drug." I get asked that a lot, and I say yes, but not in the way we most often understand the term — which is typically steroids or blood doping. Those will take your body beyond its natural limits. No matter how you train and how disciplined you are, you can only get so far in the human body, but steroids will take you beyond the natural limits of your genetics. Cannabis doesn't work like that. Cannabis is a performance enhancer in the way that anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen, mood enhancers or anti-depressants like Xanax are. There's a physiological component to it, but also an emotional and intellectual one. What I hear often from athletes is that they get dialed in to the experience, and a lot of joy out of the experience. They're restored to that state of joy after being so depleted and overrun with the discipline required to be a professional athlete

How about in competition? Do you see it being an unfair competitive advantage there?

I wouldn't say unfair, because it's not anything that's going to take you beyond what your abilities already are.

Would caffeine be a good comparison?

Absolutely. Caffeine is a stimulant that will make your heart beat a little faster, it'll make you feel sharper, and it will give potentially a little more joy and stimulation. One sports medicine educator I spoke with said it's akin to putting ice on an injury. That's not going to take someone beyond their limits; it's going to restore them after injury. That's the way cannabis functions.

A lot of people use it in competition, and some of them get caught while some of them have ways around it. But if one bodybuilder were using steroids next to one who doesn't, there's going to be a huge disparity there, or like we've seen in cycling and the Tour de France. I don't think it's reasonable to compare those two things to cannabis in terms of creating an unfair advantage.
click to enlarge Former Westword contributor Josiah Hesse takes on cannabis and sports in his new book. - COURTESY OF JOSIAH HESSE
Former Westword contributor Josiah Hesse takes on cannabis and sports in his new book.
Courtesy of Josiah Hesse

In what sports are you noticing athletes getting the most out of cannabis?

My book leans heavily toward endurance runners, partially because that's what I got really excited about when I started running on cannabis. But it's also incredibly popular. I've spoken with ultra-marathon runners who put the number as high as 90 percent of ultra runners who are using cannabis — and that is very controversial, because it is banned, and most of them are secretive about it. The runners who are honest about it get hassled a lot with drug tests, or people will call them out on Twitter for it after they win something.

One guy I feature in the book volunteers to be drug-tested. He's sponsored by several cannabis companies and is open about his cannabis use during training. He says he doesn't use it during competition and welcomes testing beforehand, but he takes a break for, like, two weeks before a race so it's not in his system. For most of them, it's something that kind of restores them back to a focus and joy of running. These ultra runners will run for anything from eight hours to six days, taking little naps here and there. At times they'll run 1,000 miles.

A lot of people did the Appalachian Trail recently, and those runners would tell you it's 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. So what they're getting out of cannabis is increased focus and sort of plugging into the hypnotic rhythms of their feet as everything else disappears, which has advantages and disadvantages. You need to be focused on your salt tabs and water intake at every station, so you don't want to be too spacey. But it is something that's incredibly popular. I can attest to feeling really run down after running for hours, and then taking an edible or hit off a joint and suddenly being right back to where my joy and energy started.

Does it come down to terpenes and ingestion method, or are runners just puffing and taking off?

It varies from person to person. I know some athletes who are incredibly diligent about it in the same way they'd be anal about shoes, socks, tape, salt tabs and everything else. I've also met others who don't think about it much, and just munch on edibles every hour or so or take a hit off their vape pen every half-hour. I think there's definitely a variation in cannabis that has different applications for different sports and bodies, and there's some fascinating science on that.

How do you see drug testing for cannabis changing in professional or international sports?

In terms of science available to WADA [the World Anti-Doping Agency], I think we know everything we need to know for things to change, and the reasons we haven't seen that yet are cultural. Living in Colorado, you get so used to legalized cannabis here that when you travel somewhere else, people still say it's a gateway drug or will make you crazy and sterile. The vast majority of the world still criminalizes cannabis, so with something like the Olympics that's an international body with lots of money involved, that's not going to change until legalization spreads further or role-model athletes say that they use cannabis and it helps their lives in a number of ways.

Are you seeing personal trainers start to take a serious look at cannabis now?

Absolutely. One of the sources in the book is a sports-medicine educator, and he's been doing a lecture circuit educating teams, trainers and athletes about the science we have in cannabis and athletics, and what works and what doesn't. His phone is ringing off the hook, and he can't stay home because this field is so in-demand. There's definitely a hunger out there for people who work in athletics as trainers or athletes themselves to know how to most effectively use cannabis.

You're seeing more events around this now. There's the High Rollerz stoned jiu-jitsu tournament [in Las Vegas], and the competitors share a blunt in the octagon. I think the winner gets a pound of cannabis or something. You've also got the 420 Games. As the industry grows nationwide, you'll see more money and time put into putting on cannabis athletic events around the country. Not necessarily the next NBA, but something that will still spread the word,.

Despite the public backlash over Sha'Carri Richardson's ban, there hasn't been any movement at the regulatory or drug-testing level for Olympic athletes. Was there any progress made in this conversation?

Definitely. This was great for the conversation around cannabis and athletics, but I'm still hearing a lot of people respond to athlete cannabis use with something like, "Well, we all know cannabis makes you slow, stupid and unfocused, so no one could reasonably claim it's a performance enhancer."

So I'm glad for the opportunity for this book to be coming out in this atmosphere, because I really want to emphasize to people that encouraging cannabis use among athletes is a good thing. Gobbling down opioids and even ibuprofen can harm you, and cannabis alternatives can be healthier. I hope that in the years ahead, this conversation evolves past the lazy-stoner stereotypes so people can have a more nuanced understanding of competition and performance-enhancing drugs and the role cannabis can play in the bodies of athletes.
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Thomas Mitchell has written about all things cannabis for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate and general news along the way for publications such as the Arizona Republic, Inman and Fox Sports. He's currently the cannabis editor for
Contact: Thomas Mitchell