If aliens touched down in Boulder, Colorado, they would assume all humans are stoned runners. High athletes are the polar opposite of the outdated stereotype of the unambitious pothead. University of Colorado professor and researcher Angela Bryan (pictured above) noticed the contradiction each day on her way to campus: hippies and weed are as abundant as gadget-wearing, biohacking joggers. Often all in one.
Bryan, a behavioral psychologist, previously researched exercise and motivation. (We were lucky to learn that her CU office was less than a minute away from our old building.) When Colorado legalized marijuana in 2012, it opened up a whole new area of research.
“Living in Boulder, we knew there were endurance athletes who say that they use [cannabis] to actually help them,” she said. Yet, the image of the lazy stoner prevails. “So what’s the deal, which is it?” she said.
As a federally illegal drug, little quality science exists. What is available is a mixed bag pointing to both the potential to harm and help.
On one hand, the World Anti-Doping Agency, which regulates drugs in sports, says cannabis is a performance-enhancing drug. The definition came to light with sprinter Sha’carri Richardson’s Olympic suspension for THC in her system. But WADA hasn’t clearly explained why or how THC improves athletic ability.
However, Bryan said old research from the 70s and 80s showed cannabis was harmful to performance. Stoned participants had less endurance and a weaker stroke strength than their sober selves. Bryan points out that these old studies don’t accurately fit in today’s cannabis landscape; 4 percent THC dad grass 50 years ago doesn’t compare to the currently popular 16, 25, or even 30 percent THC strains.
Even if cannabis damages performance, longitudinal studies by the National Institutes of Health revealed it may improve physical wellbeing. Cannabis users have a lower incidence of diabetes, better waist to hip ratio, lower BMI, and better insulin function.
“Cannabis users actually seem to be meeting exercise guidelines more often than non-users,” Bryan said. And an overwhelming majority of cannabis users endorse using before or after exercise, 81 percent of people, according to a survey by Bryan’s grad student Arielle Gillman.
Approval is seeping into the mainstream too. Even anti-cannabis institutions like the NFL are softening their THC drug testing regulations and are funding cannabis for pain research. Many pros are speaking out about their use or promoting brands.
“Those who use cannabis close in time to when they are exercising say it helps with pain, helps with motivation, helps with boredom, and it helps them to enjoy the physical activity more, so the picture is a lot more complex than we actually know.”
Running High on a Treadmill
Bryan and her team conducted research in a sprinter van—dubbed the Cannavan—because they couldn’t legally allow participants to smoke or vape on-site. They would use the product inside their own home then come out to the vehicle, outfitted with heart rate monitors, games, and syringes for blood testing. They also transported their stoned subjects in the van to the CU exercise research facility so they didn’t drive under the influence. Federal legalization would allow for more controlled studies, but they make due.
One study is funded by NIH to look at cannabinoid blood levels and insulin function. They have participants drink a foul sugary drink then see how their body responds to the sugar shock with and without cannabinoids in their blood.
“With a healthy system, you should see that [the body] is very sensitive to the drink, so you test what happens to their blood glucose over the course of two hours after they drink that beverage,” she said.
Bryan said because cannabis is a potent anti-inflammatory, it has implications on the obesogenic system and insulin function, which intertwines with inflammatory responses.
“The anti-inflammation piece is also relevant to exercise. If cannabis is dampening inflammation, it’s dampening pain,” she said. “One of the reasons exercise is more difficult as you get older is it hurts—and that’s all an inflammatory process for the most part.”
So does less pain encourage people to exercise more?
That’s one component Bryan’s grad student Laurel Gibson is exploring. She is conducting two studies on cannabis’s influence on enjoyment and motivation. Subjects take two separate 30-minute treadmill runs at the CU facility on two different days. One stoned, one sober. Participants either use a THC product, a CBD product, or a THC plus CBD product. They rank feelings like how”worked up” or energetic participants feel, and are they associating or disassociating to the activity?
“She is able to directly compare things like motivation, enjoyment, feeling like time is passing faster or more slowly, so you’re basically acting as your own control,” Bryan said.
Gibson’s second study is a remote version of the treadmill experiment. People exercise naturally and high on outdoor trails and answer similar scale questions on their phones. Thus far, they have not come to any conclusions, but their research potentially opens up a host of new questions. If cannabis does make us enjoy exercise more, is it performance-enhancing? Can bong rips motivate us to take advantage of forgotten gym memberships? Does weed make us healthier?
“That’s what makes it fun to research. When you are writing a grant, you kind of already know what the hypothesis is,” she said. “With cannabis, we don’t know. I am going to be fascinated to see Laurel’s results.”