Ok so this is going to be a controversial post so I’m going to be upfront and say this right away; I am not advocating for the use of marijuana as it is still considered an illegal drug in Canada. This blog post is to reflect the current uses of Marijuana in sport and to explore its positives and negatives in regards to athletic performance. I mean I might as well, if all things go according to plan in Canada, we’ll be able to smoke a spliff on Canada day, LEGALLY!
Ok now that I’ve done my due diligence and my lawyer is happy, let’s do this! Marijuana and Sports!
I’m going to officially start by saying that there isn’t much research, at least not great research, within this blog post. The reason? Because the Food and Drug Administration and drug laws have made it so incredibly difficult for people to research Marijuana effectively. But we’ll talk here about what has been researched and what people are currently using Marijuana for, in the world of sports of course.
Marijuana is a plant with the active ingredients of Tetrahydrocannibol (THC) and Cannibol (CBD). THC is the psychoactive compound that gives you the high that’s associated with the drug. CBD is the medicinal compound that many boast anti-inflammatory, pain relief, anti-anxiety, anti-psychosis, anti-seizures, anti-spasm, blood sugar control, appetite stimulation and it’s been claimed to even have anti-cancer properties – but there is little quality research to support these claims. CBD is the compound that makes you one with your couch and THC is the compound that gets you high. Furthermore, there are different strains of marijuana that have different amounts of THC and CBD; Sativa and Indica. Sativa plant strains are typically taller plants and have more THC in them vs CBD. Indica strains are typically shorter and darker in leaf/ bud colour and have more CBD than THC. There are also hybrid strains that are mixes of Indica and Sativas in a selective breeding process (think brocoliflower as an example of cross breeding). ANOTHER thing to point out too is the CBD and THC content is also heavily reliant on how the plant was harvested and cured. If the plant was harvested and cured earlier; there is a higher THC content but if the plant was allowed to mature longer in the flowering stage then there is typically more CBD. Since CBD is reported to have more of the medicinal compounds, we’re primarily talking about Sativas in this post (there are also a TON of different types of Sativas and Indicas! Not to mention hybrid strains)
How is this relevant to sport at all? Well for a long time Marijuana has been put on the banned substances list for athletes because of the misunderstanding due to the difficulty in researching the plant. Hell, I remember the Winter Olympic controversy behind the first ever snowboarding gold medal when they found weed in his system, because let’s be honest here; for anyone that’s ever smoked a joint KNOWS that it’s not a performance enhancing drug (unless it was an eating competition). Not to mention that there are a ton of pro athletes that do smoke weed. So why are athletes smoking up and potentially risking their multi-million-dollar careers?
Well aside from the fact that it has significantly less health issues when compared to the VERY legal and often celebrated alcohol, there are many different ways athletes are using weed in their training. Some of these reasons include to recover better from their workouts by supressing inflammation, help them stimulate appetite to meet caloric goals, helping them relax and sleep better before competitions/ races and some have even been using it to reduce anxiety before competition/ races. Many also report weed has pain management properties without as many side effects as prescription drugs. Some studies have even shown cannabis can increased oxygenation of tissues, improve vision and concentration, reduce muscle spasms and helping them forget about past traumatic experiences – however these are not specifically in the athletic population. One runner, writer and weed advocate, Tyler Hurst from Portland (of course it’s Portland) claims that it helps him during long runs similar to the runners high and has helped him recover better and it allows his muscles to relax better for his foam rolling and stretching. So, let’s take a look at them and what needs to be considered (again, I am not promoting Marijuana use!)
Firstly, smoking Marijuana has been shown to impair athletic performance. That only makes sense, you’re still inhaling toxic carcinogenic chemical compounds from combustion into your lungs. That can and will decrease your VO2 max and your lungs abilities to move CO2 out of the lungs and move Oxygen into your blood for the needed metabolic reactions. BUT is there research on what happens when you vaporize weed? Vaporizing weed is different because instead of a chemical combustion that gives off a lot of toxic waste products you’re roasting the weed at a much lower temperature to get the CBD/ THC properties without the chemical combustion. The issue is there isn’t any reliable research on traditional smoking vs vaping in athletes can comparison to vaping tobacco products isn’t fair because Bronchiolitis Obliterans (BO) AKA Popcorn lung is caused by the chemical diacteyl which isn’t found in vaporizing the marijuana plant (I have no idea about any of the vape pens that use Weed or Hash oil though). So bottom line, we don’t know the difference between Vaporizing pure weed or Vape Pen oils but we do know that smoking a joint or a bong will decrease your lung capacity and aerobic fitness – also, I have no idea if the bong water actually filters out anything as it’s commonly believed to do so, again there’s not a lot of research on this yet.
So that leaves us with eating the CBD for it’s reported effects. There are SO MANY ways to do this now! CBD and THC are both fat soluble compounds so there’s the old school budder where there is a complicated process to cook the marijuana plant in butter to make budder and then you can either bake it into baked goods like cookies or brownies or spread it on other foods like toast. There’s also marijuana oils, tinctures, pills, chocolates, candies, gummies and lollies (I’m just going to stop with the examples here because the list keeps going). So, the assumption here is that if you eat your weed then your aerobic capacity is preserved, which makes sense but no surprise here – there’s not enough research. BUT the one thing to point out is that eating your marijuana products will have the effects go longer than smoking, approximately 6-10 hours vs 2 hours for smoking/ vaporizing.
Some other effects seen in marijuana studies that can affect physical performance include an elevated heart rate and decreased short-term memory, alertness, lowered reaction time, faster muscle fatigue and it may even lead to cardiovascular disease. There’s also an association with decreased IQ and some people report an increase anxiety and paranoia. So this doesn’t seem like something that would help with sports that are a bit more coordinated and require a bit more thought and coordination like Baseball, Basketball (GO RAPTORS!) and Hockey (GO LEAFS! – see what I did there?).
So what’s the verdict? Could pot assist with some of the recovery aspects of sports? Maybe, but it could definitely impair performance more than it can enhance it; so definitely avoid toking up before sports. Like I said a few times in this post already, I am not advocating for it’s use as it’s still considered illegal in Canada and it’s 100% considered a banned substance by the World Anti Doping Agency, so it could cost you your career as a professional athlete. The truth of the matter is that we don’t have enough research to definitively say what method of taking it would be best for whatever intended benefits. Hopefully with the legalization of Marijuana for recreational use we can see a relaxation of it’s research capabilities not only the sport world but the textile, renewable energy, medicinal world and much more. But for now, the debate continues.
Ben Sit, RD, Sports Dietitian
President of Evolved Sport and Nutrition
Complete Lifestyle Management