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Improving Athletic Performance Using Cannabis

The use of performance enhancing drugs or PEDs is a big concern in the field of sports, especially in the competitive arena. Perhaps the most well-known example in recent history is the case of professional road racing cyclist Lance Armstrong, who was banned for life from participating in sanctioned Olympic sports and stripped of his trophies (including his seven Tour de France wins) after being charged and found guilty of doping.

The most common PEDs are hiding in plain sight. For example, diuretics, drugs that make the body expel water by increasing urine production, are often used by people who need to regularly weigh themselves as part of their profession. Dancers and boxers immediately come to mind. On the other hand, beta-blockers, which are used by patients with heart conditions and hypertension, have rather positive side-effects for athletes: these medications can help reduce nervousness and shaking hands and feet. In fact, Propranolol, a popular beta-blocker, is banned by the International Olympic Committee for use in sports like archery.

Another highly popular PED is the recreational drug cannabis. A well-known if rather controversial treatment for various medical conditions -- among them epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis -- cannabis is included in the DEA’s list of Schedule I drugs and also a prohibited substance across all sports by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

There is no concrete history that states exactly when athletes first began using cannabis as a PED. However, one of the earliest issues that entangled cannabis and sports is the 1998 case of snowboarder Ross Rebagliati. He won the Olympic Gold in Nagano but tested positive of marijuana shortly afterward. At the time, marijuana isn’t in the list of banned substances and Rebagliati was allowed to keep his medal. And while it wasn’t a big surprise in the sporting community back then — cannabis and athletes already had a long-standing relationship before the issue arose — it was a quite a big issue for the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Following the incident, in 1999, marijuana and cannabinoids were included in the list of the IOC’s banned substances, although at a much higher level than what Rebagliati was previously tested for.  However, it should be noted that the IOC prohibits the use of cannabis only during the period of the competition; if the athlete smokes weed days or weeks before the event, they’re clear of any violations.

Why Cannabis is Considered a PED

For WADA, at least, a drug should meet two of three criteria to be banned from use in competition. First and foremost, it should not have any potential to enhance performance. Cannabis falls under this condition, as the drug has been proven to have the potential to increase focus and decrease anxiety, which may in turn improve athletic performance under pressure.

The second criterion is that the drug should not present an actual or potential health risk to the athlete. Cannabis meets this criterion if it is consumed by smoking, as it can cause or aggravate respiratory problems. It has also been known to induce psychosis and worsen symptoms of mental illnesses. The third condition is more moral in nature: the drug in question should not violate the spirit of the sport. The use of cannabis, while gaining more and more acceptance in recent years, is still seen as socially unacceptable and is therefore considered ruinous to the image of a stereotypical role model athlete.

The first criterion is where most critics and supporters alike are focusing on: marijuana’s potential to not only enhance physical performance but also to condition the athlete mentally, both during competitive events and during exercise and training. One well-known example is the so-called “runner’s high” — a euphoric state of mind coupled with lower anxiety levels and diminished capacity to feel pain. The physical phenomenon has long been believed to be a direct effect of endorphins. However, since the body also releases endocannabinoids during exercise, more and more experts are led to conclude that cannabis also has an influence in this natural state of euphoria.

Avery Collins, an ultrarunner based in Colorado and a big supporter of marijuana, said that he enjoys going on runs when on a high and that the herb makes running a spiritual experience. “You don’t think about anything except the run itself,” he said in a 2016 interview. Collins has also stated that cannabis helps him deal with the aftermath of his grueling training. “I would be lying if I said (cannabis) doesn’t help sooth my muscles.” The runner, who participates in four to five 100- to 200-mile races every year, also used a cannabis-medicated rub to help his achilles tendon heal after a severe injury.

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How Cannabis Works to Enhance Athletic Performance

One of the key ways cannabis contributes to athletic performance is through its well-known pain-killing properties. In particular, studies have found that the cannabinoids tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) work in almost the same way as common pain-killing drugs like acetaminophen and aspirin. What’s more, THC and CBD are also structurally similar to the cannabinoids produced by the human body (endocannabinoids). This is why they bind more easily and effectively with the body’s CB1 receptors, which are found in the nervous system and which help regulate the body’s response to pain.

Exercise also increases the body’s production of anandamide, an endocannabinoid that is also called the “bliss molecule.” When THC binds with CB1 receptors, it produces the same effect as anandamide. This helps prolong a person’s good mood and motivation, which may push them to train harder, longer, and more consistently. On the other hand, when CBD binds with CB1 receptors, it stops the body from absorbing and breaking down anandamide. This results into a reduction of painful sensations. CBD has also been found to combat muscle soreness, a primary concern among athletes, by inhibiting the body’s production of proteins that cause inflammation.

The various effects of cannabis during and after training or competition also include increased tissue oxygenation, which helps improve muscular performance, improved concentration, better visual focus, and decreased muscle spasms. Marijuana has also been found to act like a bronchodilator, which helps increase the airflow to the lungs. Most athletes, but particularly swimmers and runners, can benefit from this effect.

An athlete’s state of mind is also a big influence in their overall athletic performance. This is why a group of researchers, apart from looking into the physical benefits, also looked into the anti-anxiety effects of cannabis. Another study found out that cannabis also helps with emotional processing, which is valuable for athletes who may also be suffering from psychiatric disorders such as clinical depression.

Dopamine, also called the “happy hormone,” plays a key role in motivation, as it forms a connection between an activity and a positive memory. This process happens in the brain’s striatum. With high enough levels of dopamine in the striatum, remembering positive memories and developing the habit and motivation to do the activity associated with them becomes easier. What’s more, THC and CBD both block the neurotransmitter that lowers the amount of dopamine produced by the brain; at the same time, when cannabinoids bind with CB1 and CB2 receptors in the body, they also help the brain to release more dopamine.

Athletes may also find themselves performing better if they have had sufficient rest prior. This is where THC, the primary psychoactive component of cannabis, comes into play. Some athletes may find that the high caused by THC-heavy strains is enough to improve the quality of their sleep. However, if the athlete has sleeping problems or is suffering from physical pain that makes it difficult to sleep, then THC’s sedative and analgesic effects can help them get some much-needed rest.

Cannabis can also increase the body’s impulsive responses without drastic effects in decision-making capabilities. This may prove to be valuable during athletic competitions, since heightened impulsivity also means an increase in risk-taking behavior. It has also been discovered that cannabis may even help athletes disconnect previous negative experiences associated with physical activity, which makes them more likely to try to achieve higher feats.

Finally, cannabis can also help athletes improve athletic performance by also improving their appetite. This is especially valuable for sports that rely on bulk and muscle mass, or when an athlete needs to gain weight quickly (say, in boxing to meet weight requirements). THC heightens a person’s olfactory sense for food, thereby increasing their appreciation for the taste as well. The same cannabinoid also triggers the early release of ghrelin, the so-called “hunger hormone,” preparing the body for food intake.

Strains to Try for Improved Athletic Performance

One of the best choices is the almost-perfect THC-CBD balance of Royal Medic. Sometimes called “Royal Highness,” this is a sativa-dominant hybrid with 10% THC and 12% CBD, which produces a smooth and mellow effect. It helps relieve performance anxiety while sharpening one’s focus, which is a beneficial combination for athletes. It also has pain-killing properties which are enhanced by its fruity, earthy flavor.

OG Kush is a popular strain for long-distance runners because, even if it starts off with a heady sensation, the effect slowly transforms into a powerful, body-focused high. It’s also an ideal strain after heavy training sessions, as its high THC levels (sometimes up to 25%) can help relax both the mind and body, resulting in better and faster recovery.

For improved training sessions, Fruity Chronic Juice is an optimum strain that’s both used medically and recreationally. It provides a mellow high that’s perfect for concentration (and relieving headaches) while also giving your brain a creative kick. Its delightful smell of oranges and grapefruits with an undertone of pine can also help relax the body, which makes it perfect for winding down your training regimen.

Those who participate in group sports like basketball, volleyball, and football will benefit from the social and creative kick from Sour Cheese. This strain is best for dealing with social anxiety, giving you a confidence boost to work harder and better with your team. The uplifting effects will also leave you feeling happy even after a tiring training session or an intense game.

Another potent, all-around strain is Casey Jones, a 40-60 indica-sativa hybrid that gets rid of anxiety and increases energy. Its physical and mental buzz relieves pain, reduces inflammation, and boosts motivation, which helps improve physical performance. After a game or training, athletes can use Casey Jones to rest and relax due to the strain’s long-lasting, body-centric high.

Competitive dancers and those who use rhythmic activities like Zumba for cross-training or exercise may want to try Flo. This hybrid strain is popular for its light and energetic effect, and it also gives mental clarity. Flo is a good strain for relieving stress and helping athletes deal with performance anxiety as well. Its combination of earthy, fruity, and sweet scents will also leave you feeling cheerful.

Research And Studies Show That Cannabis May Be Able To Help With Sports Injuries

Athletes should be mindful of their consumption method. Smoking might trigger allergies and respiratory conditions that may in turn affect their performance, although the effects are experienced almost instantaneously. Safer consumption methods include eating infused edibles, ingesting cannabis oil through pills or tablets (which also allows for more precise doses), and vaporizing. However, you may have to wait longer for the effects to kick in when you consume cannabis through these methods.

The debate on whether marijuana should be declassified as a PED continues. Unfortunately, current laws make it difficult to conduct more thorough research, and even the published studies encourage further tests. The fact remains, however, that athletes are using cannabis to boost their performance and aid in their training and recovery from injury. Whether or not they will be able to do it legally and not tarnish their reputation is all up to the people who make the rules.