Acute effects of ad libitum use of commercially available cannabis products on the subjective experience of aerobic exercise: a crossover study
A small dose of cannabis before a workout can boost motivation and make exercise more enjoyable. However, if performance is the goal, it may be best not to consume a joint.
This is the conclusion of the first study to examine how legal and commercially available cannabis influences perceptions of physical exercise.
The study involving 42 runners, published on December 26 in the Sports Medicine journal, comes almost exactly 10 years after Colorado became the first state to allow the legal sale of recreational marijuana, at a time when cannabis users increasingly report mixing it with their workouts.
“The main finding is that consuming cannabis before exercise appears to increase positive mood and pleasure during exercise, whether you use THC or CBD. However, THC products may make exercise more demanding,” said lead author Laurel Gibson, a researcher at the University of Colorado Center for Health and Addiction (CU Change).
The findings, along with the team's previous research, appear to challenge long-held stereotypes associating cannabis with "lethargy" and raise an intriguing question: Could cannabis play a role in stimulating physical activity?
“We are facing an epidemic of sedentary lifestyle in this country, and we need new tools to encourage people to move in enjoyable ways,” said lead author Angela Bryan, professor of psychology and neuroscience and co-director of CU Change. “If cannabis is one of those tools, we need to explore it, considering both the risks and the benefits.”
An unprecedented study
In a previous survey of cannabis users, Bryan's research group found that as many as 80 percent had used it before or shortly after exercise. However, very little research has been conducted at the intersection of these two activities.
For the study, Bryan and Gibson recruited 42 volunteers from the Boulder area who were already running while using cannabis.
After an initial session in which researchers took fitness measurements and survey data, they assigned participants to visit a dispensary and choose a variety of flowers containing either cannabidiol (CBD) or a tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) dominant variety.
THC and CBD are active components of cannabis, with THC known to be more intoxicating.
During a follow-up visit, volunteers ran on a treadmill at a moderate pace for 30 minutes, periodically answering questions assessing their level of motivation, enjoyment, intensity of effort, perception of time who is passing and their pain levels.
On another visit, they repeated this test after consuming cannabis.
Federal law prohibits the possession or distribution of marijuana on college campuses, so the riders consumed it at home before being picked up at a mobile lab, also called the “CannaVan,” and taken to the lab.
The runners also wore a seat belt on the treadmill.
Not a performance-enhancing stimulant
Overall, participants reported greater pleasure and more intense euphoria, or “runner’s pleasure,” when they exercised after using cannabis.
Surprisingly, this increased mood was even greater in the CBD group than in the THC group, suggesting that athletes may benefit from some mood benefits without the adverse effects of THC.
Participants in the THC group also reported that the same running intensity felt significantly more difficult during the cannabis session than during the sober session.
This may be due to a increased heart rate caused by THC, explains Bryan.
In a previous study conducted remotely, she and Gibson found that although runners felt more pleasure under the influence of cannabis, they ran 31 seconds longer per mile.
“It’s pretty clear from our research that the cannabis is not an enhancing drug performance,” Bryan said.
Note that many elite athletes, including American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, have been banned from competition in recent years after testing positive for cannabis.
An NCAA committee recently recommended removing it from its list of banned substances.
A different type of runner's pleasure
Why does cannabis make exercise more enjoyable?
While natural pain-killing endorphins have long been credited with the famous “runner’s pleasure,” more recent research suggests that this is a myth. In reality, chemicals naturally produced by the brain called endocannabinoids are likely at play, acting after a prolonged period of exercise to induce euphoria and alertness.
“The reality is that some people will never experience the thrill of running,” notes Gibson.
By consuming CBD or THC, cannabinoids that bind to the same receptors that our brain produces naturally, athletes could perhaps access this pleasure during a shorter workout or amplify it during a session longer, she explains.
Athletes considering using cannabis should be aware of the risks, including dizziness and loss of balance, and it is not suitable for everyone.
For someone aiming for a personal best in a 5K or a marathon, it doesn't really make sense to consume it beforehand, according to Bryan.
But for an ultra runner just looking to get through a long double-digit training run, it might be feasible.
As a public health researcher, Bryan is most interested in its potential impact on those who struggle to exercise, whether because they can't motivate themselves, it hurts, or that they just don't like it.
“Is there any world where taking a low-dose gummy before a walk could help? It is too early to make general recommendations, but it is worth exploring,” she concludes.