Tyson Gay is a world champion 100m sprinter and has run the fastest time ever by a man not named Usain Bolt. He’s also the neighbor of a good friend’s parents in Florida. Upon meeting and learning that Tyson was a runner, my friend’s mother asks, “Have you run the Boston Marathon?”
Well, of course not (his look must have been incredible). All runners are not the same. Some are better at short distances, tightly wound for quick powerful bursts. Others are endurance machines, able to go more slowly forever with sufficient oxygen and fuel. Even at longer distances, some are better tuned for a 5K or 10K distance, while others find their groove in the marathon. Having not run in high school or college, I never developed the speed that leads to competitive success in these shorter endurance distances, but I can hold a respectable pace for hours which has led to better success at the half and marathon distances.
So when someone says, “I’m a runner!”, it doesn’t give you enough information to predict how they’ll generally perform in a short race versus a long one. Are you a runner who’s fast and can tear through a 5K? Or do you go out and run 50 miles in a day? Both are runners, but they’re different. While there may be some overlap, you can’t truly excel in both simultaneously. Running “type” must be qualified.
When talking about cannabis, we must similarly define what we’re talking about. Like saying you’re a runner, saying that you consume cannabis is equally uninformative. Variation in running strength is mirrored by variation in the cannabis composition that can have drastically different effects on your mind and body.
What is cannabis?
Cannabis and marijuana are the same thing (but we’ll be avoiding the term “marijuana” here). Essentially, cannabis is made up of many different chemicals, called cannabinoids, from the plant, Cannabis sativa. The most well-known cannabinoid is THC. After all, it’s what gets you stoned and is highly sought after by recreational users. Another prominent cannabinoid produced by the plant is cannabidiol, often just called “CBD.” CBD doesn’t get you high, but is thought to convey many of the medicinal properties associated with cannabis. The relative balance between THC and CBD depends on the strain of weed or product you purchase. Recreational products are rich in THC, low in CBD, while medicinal products are often rich in CBD and low in THC. There are over 100 more cannabinoids, not to mention the aromatic terpenes, that together give cannabis its unique odor and contribute to its effects on the brain and body. So you can begin to appreciate the wide range of cannabis products and their unique effects.
Traditionally, cannabis was smoked, but these days you can vaporize it, eat it, rub it on your skin, swallow it in a pill, add it to your coffee, or stick it up your butt (yes, suppositories are a growing method of getting cannabis into your body). While many recreational cannabis users still chose to smoke the herb, medicinal users tend to be more health-conscious and use safer methods of consumption. These advances in consumption routes have allowed runners, who strain to boost their VO2 max, to select from a range of methods that doesn’t require them to inhale smoke and irritate their lungs.
Why would a runner consume cannabis?
More people now have access to legal cannabis than at any point in the last 90 years. It’s become a creativity enhancer, sleep aid, pain therapy, and training tool. Training tool? For runners?
Well yes, for some.
Cannabis is on the list of World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned substances during performance (i.e., it just can’t be in your system at the time of the race). But there’s not much data on its effectiveness (or lack-thereof) on running performance. Instead, many report that the benefits of cannabis come from its ability to help relax and focus. Perhaps that’s why many ultra-runners, who are spending hours alone with their thoughts on endless trails, are using a bit of bud to get them through the miles.
THC weakly activates receptors in the brain and body called cannabinoid type I (CB1) receptors. This leads to the “high” and where people may get lost in thought and experience elevated creativity. This is where runners may find that cannabis helps them find their rhythm. But too much THC can make you feel anxious and paranoid, at which point it wouldn’t be the ideal running supplement. One way to avoid this feeling is to consume less, another is to consume cannabis with more CBD. CBD blocks THC’s ability to activate CB1 receptors, thereby reducing THC’s negative effects. Finding your optimal ratio between THC and CBD is a critical component of safe and effective cannabis use.
Recovery… the other part of training
Any training plan that ends when you untie your shoes is inadequate. Nutrition, sleep, and muscle recovery are key components of achieving your potential on race day. Many runners report that cannabis’ role in running is by improving recovery. CBD-rich cannabis can deliver potent anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects without the “high” associated with THC. Runners and other endurance athletes, including Tour de France winner Floyd Landis, have turned to CBD to help with pain from training and injury as an alternative to NSAIDs (e.g., ibuprofen) or opioids (oxycodone). The side effects of CBD are minimal, with the most commonly reported problem being drowsiness, making CBD a relatively safe alternative to other anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving drugs.
CBD is also a potent antioxidant. Consuming CBD doesn’t mean you now have a free pass to avoid blueberries, but CBD’s antioxidant properties may be helpful for neutralizing the harmful free radicals that are released after a hard workout or race. Since free radicals contribute to the delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that forces you to walk backwards down the stairs days after the race, CBD may lead to a quicker recovery.
Sleep is an underrated component of training. Deep sleep balances stress hormones, releases important growth factors for muscle recovery, repairs heart and blood vessels, and boosts immune function. Without sufficient sleep, training suffers. Nerves start to creep in the night before a hard workout. Anxiety builds around achieving those running goals. All this, combined with your daily stressors, leaves you tossing and turning well after lights out. CBD is emerging as a promising anti-anxiety tool that could help take the edge off from a hard day. This promotes CBD, on its own or in a 1:1 THC:CBD ratio, to aid sleep in those who suffer.
A brief guide to use
The rapidly expanding medicinal cannabis industry has enabled people with legal access to consume cannabis through many different mechanisms. Most people no longer smoke cannabis by combusting the flower. After all, smoking is bad for your mouth, throat, lungs, and is annoying to non-smokers around you. That’s why for medicinal and wellness cannabis users, the bong-ripping days of Cheech and Chong are over.
Instead, those seeking a quick fix who don’t want to irritate their lungs with smoke can use vaporizers with specific cannabinoid concentrations, such as CBD-rich or balanced THC and CBD ratios. Others prefer a more discrete method like a tincture, where a drop of cannabis oil under the tongue leads to a quick onset of effects. Edibles are also a popular choice for those who are looking for a long-lasting effect, but be warned, edibles can lead to a stronger effect than vaping or sublingual tinctures due to differences in metabolic processing of the individual cannabinoids. CBD gels and creams can be effective at reducing pain and inflammation in particular regions like the lower back or knee that results from repetitive pounding.
If you’re new to the process, start with a low dose and stick with a balanced THC:CBD or CBD-rich product, especially if you know from prior experience that you’re sensitive to THC’s negative effects. But fear not, you can still use cannabis without getting high! Like the difference between sprinters and marathon runners, the type of cannabis matters for the effects you’re trying to achieve, just make sure you choose the right one.
Cannabinoids and the “Runner’s High”
We’ve all felt it. That post-run euphoria, the dissolution of daily stress, pain-free and carefree. It’s the runner’s high that hits, betters your day, and turns you into a lifelong runner. For decades, we’ve been saying at the onset of the high, “I feel my endorphins kick in!” Endorphins are your body’s natural pain killers and they’re elevated after prolonged or strenuous activity. Just like morphine and heroin, endorphins activate opioid receptors in the brain and body to relieve pain, make you feel great, and elevate you to the top of the world. Consequently, endorphins have been traditionally thought to be responsible for the runner’s high.
However, a study published in 2015 made waves by demoting the role of endorphins in the runner’s high. Instead, the article claimed that cannabinoids are responsible for the high. Is this so? After all, the body’s own cannabinoid system (called the endogenous cannabinoid system) mediates the effects of cannabis and plays a role in mood. Elevated levels make you feel good! But let’s pump the brakes before we wipe endorphins off the map.
The study assessed the importance of CB1 receptors in running’s ability to reduce pain and anxiety in mice. In normal mice (and humans) running leads to a short-term reduction in these two important components of the runner’s high. However, they found that when they used specific drugs and genetic approaches to erase the effect of CB1 receptors, running no longer reduced pain and anxiety in these mice (notably, they didn’t test euphoria).
Whoa! Who cares about endorphins, now? It’s cannabinoids that cause the runner’s high!
Not so fast.
It turns out that CB1 receptors (which are activated by THC and the endogenous cannabinoids) and opioid receptors (which are activated by endorphins, morphine, heroin) interact. In fact, they seem to depend on one another to function! So if you block CB1 receptors, as they did in runner’s high study, then it’s not surprising that you wouldn’t get signs of a runner’s high.
This is not to say that cannabinoids are not part of the runner’s high. They’re clearly important, but they may not be the sole driver. Instead, cannabinoids may work to enhance the effects of endorphins. Indeed, low amounts of THC enhance the effect of opioids. So under this framework, a small amount of THC could theoretically boost the runner’s high by synergistically enhancing the effect of endorphins.
But let’s not go crazy and say that the brain’s endogenous weed causes the runner’s high… at least not yet.
A last word
Cannabis legalization has expanded the marketplace for CBD-rich products and exposed new indications for their use. Runners and other athletes are increasingly turning to CBD as part of their recovery routine, from helping to calm nerves to relieving inflammation. Perhaps in the not-so-distant future, cannabinoid compositions and terpene profiles will be optimized to aid recovery from a running-specific training cycle. But as with any drug, from ibuprofen to morphine, it should only be consumed if safety concerns have been addressed on an individual basis.
Hear Josh on The BibRave Podcast in Episode #89: Runner’s High: Marijuana for Runners and a Boston Recap! Dr. Josh Kaplan is a regular contributor to the BibRave blog and The BibRave Podcast – read and listen to his captivating content on running and alcohol: Lesson from a Bachelor Run: The Science of Alcohol and Running & The BibRave Podcast Ep. #79: Drunk on the Run.
Josh Kaplan, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist at the University of Washington and freelance writer specializing in cannabis science. Josh developed a passion for running while in graduate school living in Portland, Oregon, reaching PRs of 1:12:52 in the Half and 2:34:11 in the marathon. He is passionate about science education and engages students of all backgrounds through his writing and classroom teaching.