If you were asked to picture the essence of a stoner, things like your age or where you were raised would likely have a big impact on what you imagine. From a long haired, bleary eyed dead head to a chain wallet wielding skater, weed has gone through a drastic shift in perception over the last few decades. It’s no longer reserved for the couch-locked hippie, but has instead attracted a slew of high performance, athletic users that are looking to optimize their activity with THC.
THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, is gaining attention both in terms of how it makes people feel during a workout and how it impacts their physiology. In this article, we’ll shed light on how using THC can elevate your fitness routine.
THC and the Endocannabinoid System
When you hear someone mention THC, it’s almost always in reference to delta-9 THC, short for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. Delta-9 THC is one of the many cannabinoids present in a cannabis plant, but delta-9 specifically acts as the primary psychoactive component responsible for the high people associate with marijuana use.
When consumed, THC interacts with the endocannabinoid system (ECS) by binding to and activating cannabinoid receptors. The ECS is a complex network of neurotransmitters, receptors and enzymes,which regulates vital physiological processes. If the ECS is the lock, THC acts as the key, unlocking two crucial types of cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2.
CB1 receptors, primarily located in the brain and central nervous system, are the main targets of THC. By binding to these receptors, THC triggers a range of psychoactive effects such as relaxation, euphoria, perceptual shifts, and changes in cognition and mood.
At a lower rate, THC also activates CB2 receptors found in immune-related tissues including the spleen, tonsils, lymph nodes, and circulating immune cells. Its activation triggers a series of signaling events within the immune cell, which curbs inflammation and promotes anti-inflammatory processes.
As a net, The CB2 receptor serves almost as a molecular light switch, modulating the activity of immune cells in response to the presence of these specific cannabinoids.
So how does this translate in the context of athletic performance?
Enhancing Performance and Motivation
There’s a point in a distance run or aerobic activity where an all encompassing feeling of euphoria kicks in and the miles become easy. That lingering twinge in your knee isn’t bothering you as much and your lungs feel like they’re getting extra oxygen. The runner’s high is a concept that many people are familiar with, but up until recently the body’s response to physical stress was somewhat misunderstood.
This euphoric state is characterized by feelings of elation, a sense of well-being, and reduced pain perception. It was previously thought to be caused by a general release of endorphins as a result of movement and strain, but recently it was discovered that this may not be the case.
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) has been proposed as one of the underlying mechanisms behind this organic high. During intense exercise, the body releases endocannabinoids, such as anandamide, which bind primarily to the CB1 receptors located in the brain and central nervous system. Anandamide is often referred to as the "bliss molecule" due to its potential role in promoting feelings of happiness.
Given that THC interacts with the same receptors, many athletes believe they can accelerate the onset of their runner's high by using THC before physical activity. The interaction in the ECS stimulates the release of dopamine and endorphins, contributing to these feelings of pleasure, sense of reward and pain relief.
Activating this runner’s high can allow an athlete to push past their normal limits so it’s important to consider what happens post workout.
Any athlete, regardless of level, knows that feeling of complete exhaustion after an intense workout. Your leg muscles are so sore from deadlifts that walking up the stairs feels like the last stretch of an Iron Man. Or that feeling in your abs that makes laughing seem like you’re taking a liver shot from Money Mayweather. These pains are a result of DOMS (also known as delayed onset muscle soreness) and are the bane of every aspiring high performance athlete.
Many athletes use THC and CBD as an alternative to NSAIDs, like Advil, as a way to ease the pain of DOMS. CBD has been shown to suppress the production of cytokines and chemokines, which are molecules involved in promoting inflammation.
And similar to the parity around “runner’s high,” the endocannabinoid system influences your body’s immune response to inflammation, which may help alleviate discomfort and aid in muscle recovery. In other words, THC can create a delayed response that lessens the feelings of pain from DOMS.
Beyond the physiological impacts on recovery, THC has another pointed output related to mental state that offers its own unique advantages.
THC can, at times, alter perception and increase focus. Many golfers are probably familiar with the concept of the “yips” - a purely psychological state where the flow of your movement is non-existent, making actions you’ve done thousands of times (like the simplest putt) feel impossible.
The flow refers to a state of heightened focus, immersion, and optimal performance where athletes feel fully engaged and in the zone. Some athletes claim that THC helps them enter this state of flow by allowing them to shut out negative thoughts and stay present in the moment.
When in this flow, rock climbers are able to calmly glide up the side of a mountain with a single finger pad tightly gripped on pebble. Runners grin while they embrace the monotonous thumping of their feet in a sort of zen-like trance as the miles and elevation gains pile up. It’s effortless efficiency that translates to memorable performances.
And let’s be honest…how much better is working out without the edge being quite so sharp?
Josiah Hesse, author of Runner’s High and ultra marathoner, talks extensively about his use of edibles as a driving factor in his growth as an elite runner:
“It was something personal for me. I got into running because of cannabis edibles. Before the age of 30, I really hadn't been physically active or interested in any kind of exercise or athletics and certainly not interested in sports…Cannabis changed the game for me—it made me want to run more, I got really into it.”
Exercise enthusiasts and athletes alike are using THC as a way to make exercise fun rather than a dreaded event. What used to be a chore, becomes a playful routine that’s easy to maintain and feels good. Sure, you’re still going to be tired, but “holy sh-t did you see how beautiful that tree was at mile 9?”
So with all this new found motivation, how do we safely apply THC to our regimen?
Adding THC to Your Exercise Routine
It's important to approach THC and physical activity with a degree of caution and consider individual circumstances. You should be aware of potential risks, such as impairment of cognitive and motor functions, which may affect performance and safety. Additionally, the legality and regulations regarding THC in your locale should be taken into account.
Be sure to wade in slowly. It would not be ideal to send yourself on a moonshot during a 50 mile bike ride because you didn’t think the edibles were that strong. It may make you feel like Lance Armstrong, but Cheryl Crow will definitely not be waiting for you at the finish line and no one’s buying your bracelets.
Because the amount you take is so important, ingesting THC via edibles and topical creams seems to be the preferred method across many different athletic disciplines as the dosage can be easily controlled. Smoking and vaping offer a faster uptick, but they can negatively impact the performance of your lungs.
For a first attempt, it would be prudent to start with 2mg - that’s enough to feel a bit of enhancement but not enough to make you feel like Willie Nelson trying to hit a PR on the row machine.
If you are new to using THC with exercise, it is advisable to consult with healthcare professionals to explore safe and effective strategies relative to your own individual needs and circumstances.
As societal attitudes around cannabis continue to evolve, it's worth some experimentation around integrating THC into your fitness routines. Further research is needed to truly understand the extent of the benefits, but many individuals have found that marijuana and movement go hand in hand. By understanding the effects, breaking the stigma, and approaching THC usage responsibly, you can potentially unlock a new level of enjoyment and performance in your fitness journey.