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People’s perceptions of weed have changed drastically over the years. Once a ritual tied to flighty hippies and sloth-like stoners, marijuana has become an elixir for those suffering from insomnia, cancer, and chronic pain.
For Kyle Kingsbury, a retired mixed martial artist, pot became the only reliable non-pill pain reliever.
Kingsbury was a football player at Arizona State who eventually parlayed his athleticism into a career as an MMA fighter on the television show The Ultimate Fighter, then in the UFC. The rigors of his training weren’t without their setbacks, though. Kingsbury was in so much pain at night he’d take four Advil to get to sleep, sometimes popping four more before training. So he circled back to pot as an alternative method of relief.
But first he did his research. He read about cannabidiol (CBD)—a non-intoxicating ingredient in marijuana—which studies have shown has powerful anti-inflammatory properties and an ability to protect neurons in the brain, helping to stave off diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. He learned that THC (tetrahydracannibinol)—the active ingredient in pot that actually gets you high—may also have similar neuroprotective effects.
Kingsbury began experimenting with a combination of THC and CBD, knowing how many blows he was taking to the head.
Kingbury found what a number of high-level athletes, from MMA fighters to bodybuilders, have also discovered: Marijuana works for their training and recovery.
It breaks up the tedium, it stills the brain, it relieves pain, and it helps them get a good night’s sleep. Anecdotally, some athletes claim it allows them to train longer and harder and lift heavier weights, says Sue Sisley, a physician who’s heavily involved in medical marijuana research.
Studies on the benefits of marijuana for athletes are mostly non-existent because weed is still classified as a Schedule 1 drug on par with heroin. And with that fact unlikely to change anytime soon given the current political climate, many professional athletes are afraid to admit to using it for fear of punishment or condemnation, even as pot becomes legal for medical or recreational use in an increasing number of states. But others, especially retired athletes, like Kingsbury, are ready to come out and say they believe we’re only scratching the surface of the benefits between cannabis and human performance.
“It’s the pinnacle of the stigma that folks who use this plant are lazy stoners,” Sisley says. “Some of the people who are using cannabis throughout their training are often the picture of health.”
Increasingly, physicians like Sisley are beginning to see the same thing.
Perceptions are shifting so weed might someday become a workout accessory—like creatine or protein powder.
In a recent podcast with UFC broadcaster Joe Rogan (a one-time weed skeptic turned prominent marijuana advocate who’s helped lobby for the UFC to relax its policies toward cannabis), six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates spoke extensively about his use of weed. And bodybuilder Kris Gethin, who’s now on a “hybrid journey” combining bodybuilding and endurance events, tells M&F that he’s begun experimenting with CBD in the lead-up to running an ultra-marathon.
“A lot of the guys I talk to are nervous to be seen or speak out about it, because they think it might upset a sponsor,” Yates tells M&F. “One of the guys I was talking to said, ‘I can’t let anyone know because I’m involved in a charity with children.’ It’s ridiculous. Could you not be involved in that charity anymore if you had a glass of wine? Older generations have this view that’s been given to them by the media. Fuck it, man—I believe it’s a very beneficial medicinal plant.”
Every day, before he hits the gym, Paul Roney and his buddy spark up a joint and take a few puffs each. Roney admits he’s a regular smoker who enjoys the high, but as a competitive bodybuilder and personal trainer in London, Ontario, Roney has also found it makes his workouts more enjoyable. He’ll often refrain if he’s doing a muscle group that requires more cardiovascular effort—say, deadlifts or bentover rows on legs or back days—but if he’s doing a smaller muscle group, like arms or shoulders, that little bit of weed can make things better. “Sometimes you’ve got to increase the food you eat when you’re competing, and if you’re taking certain performance-enhancers, you’re just not hungry,” he says. “Well, you know, if you smoke a joint, then everyone’s hungry, right? I’ll be like, ‘This is the best oatmeal I’ve ever tasted.’”
It’s still not that easy to find bodybuilders like Roney who will admit to regularly smoking; if you do a search online, you’ll find some videos of bodybuilders who insist it can only have a negative effect. And that stigma isn’t likely to go away anytime soon, even though the association between weed and the gym dates back decades to that iconic moment in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron when Arnold Schwarzenegger chilled out with a fat joint.
It’s a moment that Jim McAlpine remembers well, since he, too, was both a workout enthusiast and a marijuana enthusiast when he first saw that scene. Look at that, he said to himself. Arnie’s smoking, just like me. At the time, he didn’t even realize the medicinal and performative effects it was having on him—at least, not until he took notice of the language he was using.
“When I got into college, I’d use the word ‘supplement’ as my code word for cannabis,” says Jim McAlpine, founder of the 420 Games, a series of family-friendly athletic events designed to alter the perception of cannabis and frame it as part of a healthy lifestyle. “And I used that word for a reason—it was a supplement to me. I would smoke sometimes when I went into the gym, and I became more focused. “Eye of the Tiger”-y. It got my mind into that zone.”
For a long time, Yates avoided weed because he thought the smoke would have a negative effect on his lungs. But after reading the results of a years-long UCLA study which showed that smoke from marijuana had none of the negative effects of cigarette smoke, he began to study it further. He says he’s talked to people who have spoken anecdotally of using cannabis to heal themselves from diseases as serious as cancer. So now, like McAlpine, he treats cannabis as another natural supplement in his arsenal.
Not everyone enjoys smoking before a gym session. Yates tells M&F he takes a small amount of concentrated cannabis at night, but doesn’t like doing it before he’s got a heavy training day. He’d rather go with caffeine or ephedrine or something that pumps him up and makes him more aggressive. “I’m not saying it wouldn’t work,” he says. “I’m just saying I haven’t really tried it.”
But it is something that works for certain people on specific days. Kingsbury still practices and competes in jiu-jitsu, and if he knows he’s got a monotonous session of mat rolls ahead of him, he’ll often smoke or ingest a small amount just to break up the boredom.
The place where cannabis might have the most dramatic effect, though, is in your workout recovery. Just as it helped Kingsbury wean off his ibuprofen usage, there’s an increasing amount of research that shows cannabis can also help people transition off more powerful opioids like OxyContin. Prominent UFC fighter Nate Diaz drew a warning from the United States Anti-Doping Agency, the UFC’s partner in testing, after he took a few puffs of CBD from a vaporizer at a post-fight press conference after a loss to Conor McGregor in 2016—though the UFC is also one of the few major organizations that has relaxed its policies on testing for marijuana.
Physicians like Sisley are hoping they can convince the NFL to relax their policies next, since so many players are prescribed powerful painkillers by team doctors. The NFL has written its players association requesting a pilot program to study the use of marijuana for pain relief, but it’s unclear whether any studies are underway yet.
So what’s the best way to start integrating cannabis into your workout routine? Perry Solomon, an M.D. who works as the Chief Medical Officer of the California-based medical marijuana website HelloMD, suggests you adhere to the maxim of “low and slow”: Start with a very low dosage and gradually work your way up until “you get to the point where you want to be.”
If you smoke too much too soon, you could wind up feeling sedated or even get some mild psychotic effects, which will probably turn you off weed altogether. The good news is, the short-term side effects of smoking too much cannabis are about the only negative effects that have been uncovered by researchers thus far. So if you’re just getting started, treat weed the same way you do food when you’re dieting and control your portions.
Sisley says you might want to start with “flowers,” or the pure form of the plant, rather than diving right to concentrates or edibles, since those tend to have a stronger effect. Also, CBD doesn’t produce a high on its own, so you may want to experiment with CBD-only products or those with a 1-to-1 ratio of CBD to THC. (There are even ointments to use on sore muscles if you don’t want to ingest anything.) “Use the most minute doses you can,” she says, “then titrate up slowly.”
As for which strains to try, this is where it can get confusing, because we still know so little about the individual effects certain strains might have on an individual. The truth is that for everyone, it’s a process of trial and error: You find what works for you only by trying a lot of different things, and if you live in a state where weed is legal for medical or recreational use, there are so many choices in the average dispensary that it can be paralyzing. Maybe you find that edibles work well for you, as they do for McAlpine at times; maybe you’ll find you want a more CBD-heavy strain for the gym itself, and a more THC-heavy strain for recovery and pain relief and just to chill your muscles after a particularly challenging workout. If you’ve got a big event or training session the next day and can’t get to sleep, a more relaxing strain might help with that, too. (Roney says he’s even smoked before going onstage at a bodybuilding competition to calm his nerves.)
In the past, strains have generally been separated into indicas—which are purportedly good for sleeping and chilling out to Breaking Bad binges—and sativas, which supposedly provide more of an “up” high. But given that most strains these days are hybrids of the two, McAlpine and others are convinced that beyond the placebo effect, those distinctions are largely a myth. Instead, check out the chemical composition of the strain you’re considering: What’s the percentage of THC and the percentage of CBD? Did it come from a reliable dispensary? Is it pesticide-free?
“You don’t want something that just has a blank label that says, ‘Use this to relax,’” Solomon says. “What’s in it? How has it been tested? Those are the things that are going to be more and more important as time goes on.”
And of course, ask your friends in the gym what works for them—even if something completely different winds up working for you, you can always compare notes. At the very least, it can be pretty fun to blaze up with your friends before you hit the gym; McAlpine says it gives him a whole different perspective on the strange quirks of gym culture.
“You find yourself laughing at a lot of stuff,” he says. “That weird dude who takes showers too often becomes pretty funny.”