People smoke cannabis for a variety of reasons, including for pleasure and to unwind. Now new research has found another benefit: Getting high can make exercise more enjoyable.
The study included more than three dozen runners who were experienced cannabis users. When they smoked or vaped marijuana before exercising on a treadmill, they enjoyed their running experience more, with a greater sense of that euphoric “runner’s high,” compared with when they ran sober.
The notion of weed smokers as exercisers defies stereotypes. Many people associate marijuana use with laziness and a lack of motivation. But past research has suggested that many frequent users of cannabis also happen to be people who frequently exercise.
Angela D. Bryan, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at University of Colorado at Boulder, said her team initially began studying the issue because they wanted to understand how the legalization of cannabis would affect public health. At the time, they theorized that legalization might worsen the obesity epidemic in the United States.
But initial research suggested cannabis users might be more active than expected. The team gathered information using surveys of marijuana users and found that many of those who responded believed marijuana motivated them to be more physically active and that it not only increased their enjoyment while working out, it also enhanced their recovery.
“The idea that there’s something that we could add for people to help them enjoy their physical activity more is actually pretty important from a public health perspective,” Bryan said. The more people enjoy a physical activity, the more likely they are “to do it again.”
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Testing weed on the treadmill
To conduct the study, the researchers recruited 52 people between the ages of 21 and 39 who lived in and around Boulder, Colo. Runners were eligible to participate in the study if they had already used cannabis while running multiple times in the past “with no negative effects.” The final report included 42 runners who attended all the appointments.
Each participant ran in the lab to establish their baseline pace. Then they ran for 30 minutes sober, and came back another day to run for 30 minutes after using cannabis. Some runners used cannabis with higher levels of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, while others used a type with more CBD, the non-psychoactive component of the plant.
“The use of flower cannabis, either smoking or vaporizing cannabis, was associated with finding exercise more enjoyable, with reporting a more positive mood-state during exercise and, also, experiencing more runner’s high symptoms,” said Laurel Gibson, the lead author of the study and a researcher at the CUChange laboratory at the University of Colorado Boulder. “So, things like euphoria, relaxation during exercise.”
On the day of the “high” run, the researchers drove a van to the participants, who smoked or vaped the cannabis in their homes, taking in however much they normally would before a run. Then, the researchers collected a blood sample, weighed the remaining amount of weed and drove the participants to the lab.
Josiah Hesse, a journalist who lives in Denver and the author of “Runner’s High,” a book on the use of cannabis in distance running and other sports, was one of the first people to pilot the study in Boulder. Hesse said participating in the study was a “vastly different” experience than his typical runs along the scenic trails around Denver. For the research, he ran on a treadmill in front of a wall of mirrors while researchers periodically asked questions such as: How are you feeling right now? How difficult does the exercise feel? How much enjoyment are you feeling? And how much pain are you feeling?
“I was enjoying myself despite the somewhat surreal circumstances,” he said.
The runners in the study reported experiencing more of a runner’s high after using either type of cannabis.
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Not a performance-enhancing drug
The researchers didn’t find that cannabis enhanced runners’ performances on the treadmill. In fact, runners who used THC-dominant cannabis reported a higher level of exertion while running at a controlled pace. And in a previous study, runners who used cannabis before a run ended up running 31 seconds slower per mile, on average, than when they were sober. The time difference in the results of the study was not statistically significant.
“There’s nothing performance enhancing about using cannabis,” Bryan said. “The same activity feels harder when you’re under the influence.”
Bryan said the higher level of perceived exertion is likely because THC can increase a person’s heart rate. And “the harder your heart is beating the more effort you feel like you’re putting into the activity.”
Most of the runners in the study were White, and two-thirds of the participants were men.
All the participants in the study “had at least some experience using cannabis with exercise in the past,” Gibson said. So, the researchers can’t say whether the findings generalize to “less active populations” or “folks who have never used cannabis with exercise before.”
“We don’t want to be throwing somebody on a treadmill after getting high, if they’ve never done it before,” Bryan said. “It’s not safe.”
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For the curious: ‘Start low and go slow’
“People use cannabis mostly to help them enjoy the exercise experience, improve motivation, improve this mind-body-spirit interaction,” said Whitney Ogle, an associate professor of kinesiology at Cal Poly Humboldt, who was not involved in the study. “From archery to water skiing, someone’s getting high and doing this activity.”
Hesse often encourages first-timers to take an edible, rather than smoke, because he says it’s easier to start with a smaller dose. Hesse’s advice for cannabis newcomers is to “start low and go slow.” Hesse doesn’t recommend people go for a run the first time they use cannabis.
“Take a small amount of cannabis when you’re at home and get used to the experience,” Hesse said. “Definitely don’t go on any mountain trails that you’re unfamiliar with.”