The newest workout booster isn’t a powder or a drink—it’s a flower. Nearly 82 percent of people who partake in legal cannabis light up before or after exercise (most often both), largely because they say it makes their sweat session more enjoyable and helps them recover faster, reports a new study out of University of Colorado Boulder.
This isn’t that surprising: Among athletes, marijuana was the second most widely used drug after alcohol, per a 2016 study in the American Journal of Addictions. What’s more, a 2012 study found 23 percent of college athletes smoke—and that was before it was legal and far, far more accessible.
Now, getting high probably won’t make you stronger or faster. We have no scientific evidence THC actually improves aerobic performance, according to a 2017 study analysis out of Australia. The majority of people in the UC Boulder study felt smoking had a neutral effect on their athletic abilities.
But it may help with more nuanced aspects of your workout: “Both THC and CBD, the main compounds found in the cannabis plant, have anti-inflammatory, muscle-relaxing, and pain-relieving effects, which alleviate muscle soreness, muscle spasms, and arthritic joint pain. Athletes may be able to return to intense workouts faster because they feel better faster,” says cannabis clinician Patricia Frye, M.D., chief medical officer at HelloMD, a startup focused on educating people about marijuana.
Confused? Quick science lesson: There are hundreds of cannabinoids and compounds in marijuana plants, but the two main ones are THC and CBD, which act completely different. Namely, THC gets you high but CBD doesn’t. They’re each helpful for different things, and THC is more high-risk. But there are ways for athletes to leverage each compound for their unique benefits, says Marcel Bonn-Miller, Ph.D., professor and researcher of cannabis and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Here, the best ways to work weed into your workout.
Use it if You’re Thinking of Skipping Today’s Training
That new study from UC Boulder reports that nearly 50 percent of pre-workout smokers felt getting high helped increase their motivation to exercise. Bonn-Miller says that aligns with what he hears: “Anecdotally, THC seems to help most before and during endurance exercise.”
It sounds counterintuitive thanks to the lazy stoner stereotype, but THC might activate that runner’s high feeling, the researchers say. It works like this: Exercise creates that euphoric feeling by activating your endocannabinoid receptors that are connected to the reward and dopamine pathways in the brain. Since the cannabinoids of pot also activate these receptors, ingesting THC might create an artificial runner’s high, making you crave more of the feeling by way of getting out for a run.
Turn to THC for Repetitive, Long Workouts
Bonn-Miller says he hears about athletes lighting up most to help with endurance. (For what it’s worth, that’s a colloquial liberty: Many athletes ingest their cannabis via an extract or edible, not just smoking or vaping.) That’s partially thanks to the artificial runner’s high—you’re amplifying the feeling by combining both exercise and THC—but also the cannabinoid’s pain-relieving abilities. After all, it’s a lot easier to keep running if your bad knee isn’t aching and your muscles aren’t screaming to stop.
Physiologically, some research also suggests cannabis causes bronchodilation and may help with exercise-induced asthma.
Marijuana also helps enhance muscle relaxation, increases focus, and alters your perception of time, which can help you get through, say, a dull stationary bike session, Frye adds.
Stay Sober for Heavy or Complicated Workouts
THC definitely has its downsides: Studies show the cannabinoid diminishes strength and speed and likely affects coordination, judgement, spatial perception, and risk assessment—really not ideal for judging how heavy you should load the bar or whether you can clear that box jump. Plus, side effects include poor coordination, slowed reaction time, and poor balance, Frye points out.
Pass on puffing before lifting, HIIT, rock climbing, outdoor cycling—anything requiring motor control and mental acuity.
Save it for Your Long Runs or Rides
THC may help with low-risk endurance exercise, but don’t light up before every workout. “If you use THC every day and in high quantities, it can lead to dependence or full-blown addiction,” Bonn-Miller warns.
Even if you aren’t prone to addiction, you will build a tolerance to the cannabinoid, so using it more often means you’ll have to use more to reach the same effect. (That also increases your chances of dependence, just FYI.)
Plus, athletes need to protect their lungs: While science hasn’t shown a link between smoking weed and lung cancer, marijuana smoke does still contain a number of carcinogens, says research out of UCLA, and studies link regular weed smoking with chronic bronchitis and respiratory issues like coughing and phlegm production. (We know vaping is safer, but it’s certainly not risk-free.)
Minimize your risk by saving it for days you really need the boost in motivation and pain management, Bonn-Miller advises.
Start Low and Slow
If you want to try getting high pre-workout, do so on a low-risk training day: A 2017 study review in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found some people couldn’t complete their workout after getting high. And keep in mind everyone responds to cannabis’ hundreds of compounds differently thanks to their own unique endocannabinoid system, Frye points out.
Most important to keep in mind: Your goal is to enhance your workout, not get high. “You want to use the least amount of cannabis necessary to achieve the desired effects,” Frye says.
Look for a strain with low THC (below 15 percent), Bonn-Miller says. And, if possible, higher levels of CBD (1:1 to THC would be most ideal) since the cannabinoids work together and the CBD can help offset the negative effects of too much THC, Frye says.
Then, opt for vaping—it’s safer than smoking, faster-acting than edibles, and will only last a few hours. Most importantly: “You feel the effects of vaping almost immediately, so it’s easier to control your dose,” Bonn-Miller says. Your strategy: Take one puff and wait five minutes to see how you feel. If you need more of an enhancement, take another puff.
Take CBD ASAP for Recovery
While we don’t have any studies looking specifically at cannabis and the pain and inflammation of a hard workout, preliminary research does suggest cannabinoids reduce general pain, muscle spasms, stiffness, and inflammation in humans. And there’s some science to support the idea that the compounds reduce some of the pro-inflammatory cytokines specifically released in exercise, like IL-6 and TNF.
CBD is probably the most helpful compound for recovery since it helps reduce inflammation, which can allow you to get up and moving again faster, Bonn-Miller says. We don’t really know how it works—CBD acts through so many avenues and we haven’t been researching it long enough—but studies have found it helps with inflammatory pains like osteoarthritis in animals and IBS in humans.
Pretty much all our research is on pure CBD with max 0.3% THC. Frye points out that both THC and CBD have anti-inflammatory, soreness-easing effects, so CBD with a small amount of active THC, like a 15:1 or 20:1, may help an athlete return to intense workouts faster.
In short: Reaching for a CBD isolate or a 20:1 formula is the athlete’s choice.
But get it in your system ASAP, Bonn-Miller says. You want the anti-inflammatory compounds in your body as close to the time you injure or stress yourself as possible, and most CBD comes in an extract, which takes some time to get to circulate, he explains.
Dosing is hard—most products recommend somewhere around 10 to 25 mg, while science uses upwards of 50 mg at a time, typically more in the 250 range (of pure CBD). The good news: You can’t really overdose on CBD (studies have shown minimal side effects up to 1,000 mg), so you just risk not taking enough for effect, Bonn-Miller says.
Skip gummies and sports topicals—the CBD takes too long to reach inflammation, and science says the CBD variety isn’t much more effective than the regular topical pain relievers.
Bonn-Miller recommends starting with 25 to 50 mg of CBD, then work your way up, especially if you’re using a formula with THC (which will add up with every dropper you take) or don’t know the quality of your extract. (Considering there’s no federal oversight on product quality and efficacy right now, that pretty much applies to everything: An often-cited 2017 study in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that nearly 70 percent of the CBD products tested didn’t contain the amount of cannabidiol indicated on the label.)