Workout Tips

9 Ways Weed Can Help (or Hurt) Athletic Performance

Marijuana has never been more accessible—or popular. But how does it affect hard-training athletes? Here’s what we know right now.

Man Exercising With Dumbbells
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Now that cannabis is legal in several parts of the U.S., researchers are starting to debunk several myths about marijuana. At the same time, weed’s social stigma is beginning to loosen—so much so, in fact, that athletes and fitness gurus who laud marijuana’s wellness benefits are starting to challenge the stereotype of lazy, overweight stoners.

But is marijuana truly a miracle drug that enhances athletic performance or do its negative side effects outweigh its benefits?

We spoke to several experts in medicine, fitness, and the cannabis industry about how marijuana can potentially benefit or hurt your fitness.

Five ways weed can improve athletic performance

1. Reduce inflammation

Reducing muscle and joint inflammation is one of the most promising areas of cannabis research. Many studies have found that CBD, the nonpsychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana, helps ease inflammation. Now, researchers are looking into its potential to treat autoimmune conditions like Crohn’s disease, lupus, and psoriasis.

Adam Brous, a certified yoga instructor and founder of Ganja Guru Yoga in Denver, CO, uses marijuana in his practice and recommends it to his clients for this purpose. “I have worked with athletes who have found cannabis to be a helpful aid,” Brous says. “Typically, they’re dealing with pain and inflammation of the muscles and connective tissue or recovering from past injury or surgery.”

For athletes who want to reap the benefits of CBD’s anti-inflammatory properties without smoking it or getting the high, Brous recommends topical products. “Topicals and tinctures are incredible for locally targeted recovery in highly concentrated doses.”

Jamie Feaster, a former Division I college pole vaulter and current vice president of marketing at marijuana delivery startup Eaze, also turned to CBD for its anti-inflammatory properties when he ruptured his Achilles tendon.

“As an active athlete, it was a devastating injury and I was open to exploring alternative medicine solutions to help me heal,” Feaster says. “The CBD lotion really helped me understand the wellness benefits cannabis can provide. CBD is my favorite form, given that it typically delivers the best results when it comes to anti-inflammatory and healing properties.”

2. Ease soreness and pain

Going hand-in-hand with its anti-inflammatory properties, cannabis has also been found to alleviate pain. This is one area of cannabis research that has shown many positive results. Marijuana can alleviate pain caused by everything from chronic pain to acute pain from muscle spasms, studies have found—and that’s good news for anyone looking for alternatives to dangerous, habit-forming opiates.

San Francisco-based trainer Zach Scioli of DIAKADI Fitness is an advocate for marijuana therapies to help with muscle recovery and alleviate pain from injuries—but he wasn’t always.

“Societal norms shaped my thinking about marijuana, but it doesn’t take much digging into studies to find that cannabis’ compounds are anti-inflammatory, stress reducing, antioxidative, and pain mediating, to name just a few benefits,” Scioli explains. After suffering a slipped disc in his lower back, he was bedridden for weeks and on a cocktail of painkillers. “Being prescribed extremely strong prescription painkillers to treat pain, I realized their high addiction and toxicity potential. I opted to try CBD oil and high-grade THC extracts to manage pain and inflammation. Looking back, it was the best choice I could have made.”

Christopher Louie, founder of Colorado-based cannabis startup Made in Xiaolin, had a similar experience, although his injury was more catastrophic. He credits marijuana with saving his life. “My passion for cannabis began when it replaced the opiates I was being prescribed for a gunshot wound I sustained in 2003,” he says. Specifically, he was prescribed a powerful pill form of morphine known as Kadian, and when the withdrawal between refilling prescriptions became too much, his doctor put him on Neurontin, which made him suicidal. “Since treating with cannabis I’ve learned that not only does it help with the physical pain, it helps me mentally—it has greatly increased my quality of life.”

3. Treat muscle spasms

Another area of medical application for cannabis is in treating muscle spasms. Cannabis has shown positive results in treating muscle spasms associated with diseases like multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s, and its benefits could extend to athletes suffering from spasms as well. “There have been studies in rodents showing some beneficial effect in muscle recovery and reduction of muscle spasm, presumably due to the anti-inflammatory properties the compound possesses,” explains Erich Anderer, M.D., chief of neurosurgery at NYU Langone Hospital – Brooklyn.

That said, health application of cannabis is a new area of study, and Anderer says scientists need more research on athletes who don’t suffer from any of these disorders. “I don't know any rats that do CrossFit, so more research needs to be done before we can recommend it for this use with any confidence,” he says. “The problem is that right now there is no scientific evidence it works in humans.”

4. Improve sleep

It’s no secret that THC induces sleep, but studies have also found that it can help people with sleep apnea and even suppress dreams, which is beneficial for those suffering from PTSD. Meanwhile, CBD can ease REM sleep disorder (where people “act out” their dreams) and daytime fatigue. Everyone knows how important sleep is to overall fitness, so this can be extremely beneficial to your athletic performance.

“I recommend CBD to nearly all of my clients for sleep,” Scioli says. “It greatly decreases their stress levels, which in turn improves their sleep quality and duration.”

However, marijuana’s effects on sleep do come with some caveats. One small 2004 study found that young adults who took THC before bed slept normally, but woke up feeling sleepier and with an impaired memory. The same study found that a blend of 5mg CBD and 5mg THC resulted in less stage-3 sleep, but better performance the day after on a number recall task.

Another benefit: Marijuana can be an alternative to traditional sleep medications, which can be habit-forming and come with a litany of side effects. “Eaze recently released our 2017 State of Cannabis data report, which found that 95% of respondents used cannabis to help reduce their sleeping and anxiety medication consumption,” says Feaster.

5. Improve mental acuity

Contrary to popular thinking, marijuana may not have detrimental effects on brain function. In fact, it could be the opposite. Regular, low doses of THC actually restored cognitive function in old mice, according to a June 2017 study published in Nature Medicine. Anecdotally, many of the fitness experts who spoke with us said weed helped them get in the “zone” with their workouts.

“Cannabis has helped my mental game and focus incredibly. Early in my practice, cannabis helped to reduce anxiety, and keep me calm and focused on one task,” he says. “Later, I noticed that cannabis acted as a catalyst to achieve a meditative ‘flow state’ that is crucial to success in athletics.”

Risks of marijuana use

6. Smoking weed can damage lungs

“Marijuana can hurt athletic performance significantly if you smoke it,” says Anderer. “It has been linked to structural damage in the lung—possibly even cancer, although the evidence is not as strong as it is with cigarettes.”

All athletes know that healthy lungs are essential to your overall fitness, so they should be wary of smoking anything.

Scott Chipman, the head of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, cites the lack of regulation in marijuana production as one of the key reasons he’s opposed to it. “Marijuana smoke is registered in California as a carcinogen and contains four to five times the toxins, irritants, and carcinogens as tobacco smoke and 20 times more ammonia, a poison,” he says. “And, a recent UC Davis study of marijuana samples from four Southern California dispensaries found 93% of the samples tested positive for contaminants including pesticides.”

Of course, airborne contaminants aren’t necessarily exclusive to marijuana, and not all marijuana products are consumed via smoking, but the hazards are there nevertheless.

7. Weed can impair motor skills

It’s no secret that, like any intoxicant, marijuana can impair your motor skills.

“Cannabis use can acutely impair decision making and motor coordination that can make certain activities more difficult, such as driving,” says Jeff Chen, M.D., M.B.A., the director of the Cannabis Research Initiative at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

While Feaster believes in the healing properties of marijuana, he notes that some physical activities shouldn’t be done under the influence. “Marijuana can be a great supplement for recovery after workouts, but I don’t recommend using high levels of THC when pole-vaulting!”

Scioli agrees: “THC should not be used just prior to resistance exercises. It decreases reaction speed and global stability—not what you want when lifting heavy objects.”

In the same vein, research has now found evidence that while marijuana may actually restore cognitive function in older users, it can be harmful to the developing adolescent brain. “Cannabis use during adolescence is correlated with decreased neurocognitive performance, changes in brain structure, and alterations in brain function,” Chen explains. “However, like with other cannabis findings, you can only demonstrate correlation and not causation in observational studies.”

8. Increased likelihood of chronic depression

“In medicine, whenever we look at the therapeutic use of a compound, we want to ensure the benefits outweigh the risks—and there are certainly health risks to cannabis use,” Chen says. One of the risks of extended cannabis use is an increased likelihood of depression. “Heavy long-term usage of cannabis is correlated with increased risk of psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia,” he says.

Depression can be detrimental to fitness, both by decreasing motivation and causing numerous physical side effects. Depression and stress increase the body’s cortisol levels, which can lead to weight gain, a weakened immune system, blood sugar fluctuations, and gastrointestinal problems.

9. Increased heart attack risk

Marijuana has been linked with an increased risk of heart attack within one hour of consuming it. Combined with one of the main triggers for heart attacks—sudden exertion—exercising while under the influence of cannabis can be potentially dangerous.

Anyone with any history of heart problems should consult a doctor before beginning any fitness regimen, and probably should avoid marijuana altogether.

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