Exploring further into the intersection of substance and exercise, last week’s article on how alcohol affects exercise resumes as this week’s dive into marijuana and exercise.
Marijuana’s well known for its psychoactive effects. But since California passed Prop 215 in 1996, the plant has enjoyed a medical renaissance.
To better understand the medicinal claims, you have to get familiar with the herb’s main properties. Specifically, cannabis is composed of cannabinoids, which are chemical compounds found in the plant itself.
When you consume cannabis, these compounds interact with your cells and effectuate the claimed medical benefits.
Amongst the more prominent cannabinoids, THC (D9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is often cited for the psychoactive, focus, and calm, inducing effects it brings on. While CBD (cannabidiol) is credited with the plant’s medicinal properties.
For example, athletes and casual exercise enthusiasts alike believe the herb aids their joint aches, spasms, inflammation, and alleviates discomfort. Hence, CBD is crucial in the recovery process.
But are the claims valid? If so, in CBD we’ll have a tremendously helpful substance that can enhance recovery and ultimately confer greater fitness benefits.
The anecdotal evidence isn’t in short supply, but because of marijuana’s Schedule 1 Drug classification, the research is.
Let’s clarify, there are studies investigating the effects on humans, but for something which may bestow amazing benefits, they aren’t enough.
Fortunately, there is research on cannabis’ effect on some exercises.
Similar to alcohol, a 2013 New York Psychiatric Institute study1 found that active marijuana produces “modest, non-dose-dependent deficits in attention, psychomotor function, and recall.”
Considering the importance of motor skill in relation to exercise, an even slightly impaired sense of psychomotor function can be extremely detrimental. Hence, if your balance and coordination are affected, you’re risking injury and not performing at peak rates, no matter the exercise or intensity.
How you consume marijuana has major implications. Different methods affect intensity, and more pertinently, lung function. Specifically, smoking herb produces lung invading carcinogens that increase the risk of pulmonary related conditions, such as bronchitis and cystic fibrosis.
A 2003 University of Otago study2 shed further light on the connection. The researchers concluded that similar to tobacco smoke, marijuana smoke damages the lungs through combustion (the burning process) derived byproduct.
Further, the study noted that “differing patterns of inhalation mean that smoking a ‘joint’ of cannabis results in exposure to significantly greater amounts of combusted material than with a tobacco cigarette.”
An earlier study3 compared 91 marijuana dependent subjects with 264 tobacco smokers. The researchers noted that “after controlling for tobacco use, respiratory symptoms associated with cannabis dependence included: wheezing apart from colds, exercise-induced shortness of breath, nocturnal awakening with chest tightness and early morning sputum production.”
Further, “frequency of respiratory symptoms in cannabis-dependent subjects was similar to tobacco smokers of 1-10 cigarettes/day.”
The aforementioned studies clarify a popular misconception. Specifically, if concentrating solely on marijuana’s effect on the lungs, smoking herb is no better – and due to inhalation patterns, worse – can be worse than smoking cigarettes
However, the research evinces the harmful effects of combustion in particular, not of the plant itself.
Moreover, the lung incapacitating effects are particularly harmful to exercise. Working out increases the need for energy in order to fuel the muscles’ sped up metabolic rate. To increase energy production, muscles require more oxygen.
Unfortunately, as your lungs become more adversely affected by smoke, your airways become more constricted and make oxygen delivery difficult when your body needs it most.
There is also some science on marijuana’s effect on power output. Specifically, a self-reported study4 found that “marijuana usage before exercise failed to influence power output as assessed by a grip strength test.”
However, smoking affected endurance performance by “25% when performance was being held at 170 BPM.”
A seminal study5 examined the plant’s effect on maximal exercise performance. The researchers studied “12 healthy young subjects who did progressive exercise on an ergocycle to exhaustion under two conditions: non-smoking (control) and 10 minutes after smoking herb.”
Even though “at peak exercise performance, there was no differences in oxygen uptake (VO2), carbon dioxide output (VCO2), heart rate, and minute ventilation (VE) between the two experimental conditions.“ The latter group experienced reduced exercise duration. The findings reflect those mentioned above in that both studies cite decreased endurance.
Moreover, the subjects which smoked marijuana right before exercise experienced bronchodilation, an air constriction in the lungs caused by tightening of surrounding smooth muscle, which results in coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
The research does elucidate some connections between cannabis and exercise. However, to get the whole picture, it’s worth considering how cannabis affects athletes and casual gym goers outside the laboratory.
When taking in “the whole picture,” we’re talking about a variety of people consuming the plant in different ways. Hence, marijuana’s effect on a particular person depends on dose, strain, gender, body composition, and method of consumption.
Last but not least, tolerance levels partly determine the individual effect.
The Strain Effect
Anecdotally, athletes and casual fitness enthusiasts alike cite marijuana’s focus and calm inducing effects on their workouts. Staying “in the zone” is a major benefit as your trudge along on the treadmill.
But while some strains keep you focused, others confer different benefits. Specifically, a strain enabling total focus won’t enhance your yoga session. Instead, other strains may bring on higher awareness levels and aid with poses and laxity.
So marijuana is part of your fitness regimen, pick a strain conducive to your workouts. With what seems like boundless selection, there’s a strain for every mood, activity, and occasion.
When choosing a strain, remember that each type contains varying amounts of cannabinoids. One strain’s cannabinoid makeup and profile will affect your activity and mood levels differently than another’s.
When picking a strain, keep the dosage in mind. The cannabinoid profile determines how high, and what kind of high, you’ll experience. Consequently, “mild psychoactivity is about 2-3 mg THC, with significant and strong psychoactivity reported at 5 and 10 mg respectively.”6
Typically, “50-60% of cannabinoids like THC are absorbed into the bloodstream and bind receptors when smoking, with the rest lost to combustion and sidestream smoke.”6
However, if you prefer edibles to smoking, cannabinoid absorption decreases to 10-20%. But while absorption decreases, the psychedelic effects increase since the liver converts THC to 11-hydroxy-THC, which has more significant psychedelic effects and lasts about twice as long in the body.”7
So if you’re working out after an edible, you might be taking too much. For example, in Colorado, the average edible contains roughly 10mg of THC.8 And even though you’re only absorbing around 10-20%, conversion to 11-hydroxy-THC makes an already high dose even more psychoactive.
The collection of studies and anecdotal accounts generates several propositions.
First, the underfunded research highlights some of marijuana’s detrimental effects on exercise.
Second, there is a myriad of factors that determine how and to what extent herb plays a role. Depending on the method of consumption, type of exercise, dosage, strain, gender, age, and body composition, marijuana can make or break your workout.
Third, individual accounts paint cannabis differently than research. While the aforementioned highlights some of the impediments, individual feedback ranges from “exercise boosting” to “munchies inducing.”
Hardgainers swear by herb’s appetite boosting prowess, cardio warriors stay “in the zone” as they trudge along on the treadmill, and bodybuilders love the anti-inflammatory and spasm alleviating properties.
Taking it a step further, some athletes claim that certain strains have performance enhancing effects, referencing lower anxiety levels and increased pain thresholds.
But even if a strain may help you physically and spiritually, there are other downsides. As anyone who’s ever indulged can attest, it’s so easy and fulfilling to get demotivated.
Instead of the gym, it’s comfortable to settle on the couch and munch away as you binge your favorite show.
Getting comfortable is great for relieving stress, but it’s not the best way to progress your fitness. So if you’re going to combine herb with exercise, consider the relevant factors and pick the right strain!