There was a time when cannabis use and exercise seemed mutually exclusive, at least if you bought into the traditional pothead stereotypes. But here in 2017, there has been an explosion in interest and science surrounding cannabis use and physical fitness and performance.
Personally, cannabis helped me a great deal. I got to a point where I was more than 50 pounds overweight, bordering on muscle atrophy from lack of exercise, and got winded walking to the store. I had a huge mountain to climb. Cannabis helped me both physically and mentally, and I’m certainly not alone. Both regular folks and world-class athletes are having success integrating cannabis into their exercise routines.
This is logically the point at which I’d start presenting endless studies surrounding cannabis use and exercise, but I’m not going to bother for reasons I mentioned in the introduction. You can easily support the notion that cannabis is either beneficial or harmful in terms of physical fitness based on contemporary science. So, as you’ll often hear me prefacing before I share my thoughts and experience, it’s problematic to rely on science at this point for hard answers surrounding cannabis use. The community is not even close to a consensus, and there’s no guarantee they will ever reach one. As with everything else, it’s up to you to figure out what works for you.
Having said all that, I believe there can be some real benefits for some, both out-of-shape people and those already working at a higher level.
We all know it can be a real struggle to get the ball rolling when you’re unhealthy and have little energy. For myself, there were definitely benefits of cannabis use in the beginning of my mission to get off the couch.
For one, when I was extremely out of shape, being high before getting started helped take away some anxiety and hesitation. It sounds weird to me now, but it’s easy to forget how intimidating it can be to walk into a gym or pool as a very weak and/or overweight person. It feels like everyone except for you is perfect, like you’re always the weakest guy or fattest girl in the building. You’re uncomfortable doing exercises you haven’t done in years, if you’ve even done them before. It feels like everyone else is secretly snickering at the pathetic amount of weight you’re benching or how you only lasted six minutes on the treadmill. Cannabis helped me zone out and just forget about all the nonsense my mind was creating. (Nobody actually cares what you’re doing in the gym.)
Cannabis also help deal with the extreme physical demands on your body when you’re first digging your way out. If you haven’t worked out regularly in years, a jog around the block or a game of basketball can leave you limping around the house for days. Just a few sets of squats can cripple you. The workouts suck at first, and the aftermath is even worse. When I was desperate for motivation and had little to draw on, the knowledge that if I got through the workout, I’d be able to kick back afterwards with a few joints and not feel so bad was a great comfort. A lot of people use beer or wine in a similar way; I’d argue cannabis is generally a much healthier and more sustainable alternative.
Another strange but powerful way it helped me—and I suspect this may be true for other physically fit, chronic users—is how much exercise enhances cannabis. I started noticing that it became so much more enjoyable and satisfying when I had a killer workout under my belt that day.
When you’re out of shape, your mind is undergoing almost a daily civil war between the “get off your ass” faction of your brain and the endless excuses and rationalizations for why you can’t or don’t need to go work out today. So, in the beginning when I was desperate for any source of motivation, I began appealing to myself on a “pothead” level: think how much better tonight will be if you go do this workout. Ideally, you should cultivate motivation and drive from within. But when you’re out of shape and all fucked up, it’s desperation time.
For those of us who like cannabis and already have the ball rolling, there’s benefits as well. It’s anecdotal at this point, but many people (including professional athletes) who use cannabis in their routine claim that cannabis helps with “zoning out” and getting through intense training. I would certainly agree based on my experience. As you climb the ladder of fitness, training obviously becomes more intense. And some days, it just plain sucks. I’m usually pretty pumped when it’s time for my daily routine. But some days, the idea of hitting a punching bag until my shoulders melt is not appealing. I cannot even imagine what it’s like for pro athletes, who are often looking at 3–6 hours of training per day for months at a time.
On the inevitable tough days, a little cannabis added to your pre-workout routine can really help you get through a boring session you’re not looking forward to. It’s also hugely beneficial in shutting out the noise we sometimes have coming out of our brains. It’s hard to focus on the task at hand when you’re worrying about your job or your boyfriend or some person who cut you off in traffic on the drive over.
Improved pain management is also a huge benefit. I’ll be discussing opioids and painkillers at length in a different chapter, but the ability to manage the inevitable bumps and bruises without resorting to highly addictive and harmful painkillers is immense. If you follow the NFL, you already know there’s a huge push amongst players for the league to remove cannabis from its list of banned substances to provide an alternative to the epidemic of opioid usage in the league. And for those who don’t like to get high, there’s been an explosion in interest and usage of CBD through various delivery methods, from edibles to vaporizers.
One of the few consensus conclusions most studies surrounding cannabis use and physical activity seem to reach is that cannabis use has a negative effect on motor skills and performing complicated tasks, whether that’s athletics or related to things like operating a motor vehicle. It’s hard to argue with the sheer amount of what looks like credible evidence.
But it gets incredibly confusing when you see someone like Nate Diaz outwit and defeat world-class fighters by executing extremely complicated sets of punches or advanced submission techniques. Facing an opponent who hasn’t used cannabis; shouldn’t he be at some massive disadvantage?
Fight fans might recall the story of one of Diaz’s pre-fight drug tests in which he tested positive for cannabis; the reading was said to be at such a high level that he must have literally been using right up until he walked to the ring. The result? A dominant first round victory for Diaz. Try out-boxing or forcing a submission out of Takanori Gomi next time you see him, and see if that requires motor skills or quick reflexes.
And don’t get me started on maybe the greatest “cannathlete” of all time: Ricky Williams, who dominated the NFL before his career was destroyed by an ignorant, hateful, cannabis witch hunt.
My suspicion is that most studies are primarily using people who aren’t regular users, which makes sense. I’m sure using cannabis does affect the reflexes and fine motor skills of someone who doesn’t regularly use, but for long time cannabis users, it seems the effect is not significant, if a factor at all.
Although the science can be confusing, as mentioned, in 2017 there’s a great deal of research going on and it hopefully won’t be long before we reach more solid conclusions. For myself and many others, the personal success we’ve had is evidence enough. I’m sure over the next few years we’re going to see many more pro athletes become open with their cannabis use, which should really open up people’s eyes to some of the possibilities.
For those of who already use cannabis, it can be a great tool to get to whatever level of fitness we want and to make sure we stay there. As I always say, only you can figure out if it’s right for you.