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Could Pot Make You Fitter?

Long distance runners are on board; our experts discuss the implications for gym-goers.

In an age of legalization, edibles, and medical marijuana cards, pot's pushing its way into the health and wellness space: Runners are preaching the powers of pot and professional athletes are endorsing its use in recovery. It seems everyone knows someone who tokes and takes fitness seriously.

Scientific literature on the topic of marijuana and exercise, however, is slim. Since the U.S. government still classifies marijuana as a schedule I drug, it’s hard to study; and only in the past few years have some of weed’s positive health implications become more widely accepted and reported.

But there actually are anecdotal reports that weed can enhance athletic performance, says Arielle Gillman, a researcher at the University of Colorado–Boulder who recently co-authored an article on the topic. “These reports come from all kinds of exercisers—including endurance runners, rock climbers, weight lifters, and hikers.” Of course, the opposite is true, too: “There are plenty of people who state that marijuana makes them feel tired or lazy, and thus, makes workouts more difficult.”

We asked the experts how a marijuana habit could impact an average workout session. Their thoughts, below:

(1) A high could tune you into your body. 
The cognitive effects of cannabis include lower anxiety, changes in how you estimate time passing, and shifts in focus (you "tune into" your body or focus instead on your surroundings), says Gillman. When it comes to exercising high, researchers tend to extrapolate: “We can speculate based on what we do know about how marijuana impacts people psychologically in non-exercise contexts.” And a large part of exercise performance is psychological, says Gillman. So, she notes, it’s fair to assume that feeling a little less stressed, a little more focused, and like time is flying by could all help with performance.

(2) Cannabinoids might boost motivation. 
It’s often believed that the runner’s high is caused by endorphins. But scientists have more recently discovered that that ‘feel-good’ feeling from movement also comes from your body’s version of cannabinoids (which are in pot), called endocannabinoids. Since these receptors in your brain interact with the brain’s reward pathways, exercise becomes rewarding, many researchers agree.

To this extent, it’s possible that cannabinoids (like those in marijuana) may have beneficial effects on exercise motivation, says Gillman. But it’s too soon to suggest toking as a technique for never missing a workout: Cannabis could also interfere with your body’s endocannabinoids, making you less likely to make that a.m. run, says Gillman.

(3) Buzzkill: Smoke will (still) hurt.
“We know that smoke can be detrimental to performance,” says Gillman. That could be why athletes who do use may be more likely to turn to a vaporizer or choose edibles, she notes. It makes sense: One study in The Harm Reduction Journal found that those who vaporize instead of smoking report fewer respiratory symptoms.

(4) Pot could help your DOMS.
In the states where medical marijuana is legal, one of the intended conditions is pain. And to this extent, it’s certainly possible pot could be a part of a healthy cool down, says Gillman. That’s because there is a good amount of research that shows cannabis can reduce pain, inflammation, and muscle spasms in humans. If you’re going to try it, look for a potent pain-relieving cannabinoid called cannabidiol (CBD), says Gillman. “It's possible that anti-inflammatory properties of some forms of cannabis could help with sore muscles.” CBD is truly therapeutic: It’s non-psychoactive, so it won’t make you high.