Can Athletes Improve Performance With Cannabis?

April 20, 2023
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Is cannabis good for athletic performance and recovery?

Physical activity is one of the best ways for people of any age to maintain or improve their health and wellbeing. Whether your favorite activity is yoga, rock climbing, pick-up basketball, or salsa classes, you may have experienced some degree of muscle soreness, poor sleep, or sport-related performance anxiety. Did you know cannabis can enhance exercise experiences?

These issues are common for both elite athletes and active adults. Could cannabis be a natural way for active adults to boost their recovery and performance?

Can marijuana boost athletic performance?

Most of the studies investigating cannabis use in athletes have focused on misuse in elite, adolescent or university-aged athletes. But recent studies have suggested that top-level athletes are using cannabis to “improve mood and enjoyment of exercise.” However, there are few studies that examine how adult community-based (non-professional) athletes use cannabis, and if cannabis can benefit this population.

In 2019, a group of MD and PhD researchers from the Canna Research Group published a large population-based survey of adult athletes who use cannabis. They hypothesized that there would be age-related differences in how adult athletes consumed cannabis, as well as age-related differences in positive and adverse subjective effects.

More than a thousand people took the survey, and 301 individuals reported current cannabis use and were included in the analysis. The survey asked participants if they used cannabis within an hour prior to exercise, during exercise, or within an hour after exercise; their reason for using cannabis at that time; and presented various positive and negative subjective effects that the participants could endorse.

The survey also collected data about the participants’ demographics, as well as how they administered cannabis and the types of cannabinoids they consumed. The researchers found notable differences in how younger and older populations of adult athletes use marijuana and CBD, and different subjective effects of cannabis between older and younger athletes.

If you are an adult athlete and you want to use cannabis to improve your athletic performance or recovery, visit your local cannabis dispensary and peruse what products they have in their cannabis and CBD catalog. Some dispensaries may offer CBD-only products. Choose a product, experiment with it, and record your experiences on Jointly. Or if you live in a state with only medical cannabis, talk to a cannabis doctor at your local medical marijuana clinic to find out the best way to add cannabis to your physical activity routine.

Why study cannabis and adult athletes?

Athletes, whether casual, weekend warriors or professional, often work themselves harder than they should. They can develop chronic pain or acute injuries from overtraining or a lack of rest. Often athletes feel immense pressure to perform well, which puts them at “increased risk of...deficits in well-being.”

As legalization and medical marijuana programs spread across the United States, more people are using cannabis and CBD to take control of their well-being. But due to decades of federal prohibition, there hasn’t been much research into how cannabis affects different populations of people, like younger versus older athletes. The researchers decided to look at the subjective effects of cannabis, because “measuring subjective effects and relating them to patterns of use, cannabinoids used, routes of administration, and age-related differences can provide insights for athletes, consumers and medical professionals.”

How was the survey conducted?

The researchers collected participants through advertisements posted at busy sporting goods stores, “allowing for large scale targeting of potential participants in a relatively short time.” All participants were over the age of 21, self-declared athletes of any sport, and English-speaking. Of the participants, 60.3% were male, and 89.1% were white, but there was no difference in age distribution based on sex or ethnicity. The researchers grouped the participants by decade: (21-29), (30-39), etc.

What did the survey find?

Older athletes used mainly CBD-only products, whereas younger athletes consumed more THC-only products and more THC/CBD products. The frequency of use did not differ by age, but younger athletes “consumed edibles, smoked, and vaporized more often than older athletes.” Older athletes used tinctures and cannabis-infused oil at a higher rate than younger athletes.

The survey results indicate that younger athletes use cannabis before and after exercise more frequently than older athletes. Cannabis use during exercise was fairly infrequent. 4.3% of athletes between 21-29 used cannabis while exercising, compared to 11.1% of athletes between 40-49, but there was not a significant age-based trend overall.

Athletes who used cannabis an hour prior to exercising did so to improve focus (46.3%) and to improve activity enjoyment (47.8%). Athletes who used cannabis within an hour after exercising did so to improve recovery (75.4%), for pain management (67.9%) and to improve sleep (65.7%). The researchers noted a significant trend towards younger athletes endorsing more positive effects from marijuana than older athletes.

Of the nine possible positive subjective effects, six were more prevalent among younger athletes: helps with sleep, calms me down, decreases day-to-day anxiety, euphoria, decreases nausea, and increases energy. The positive subjective effects of less pain, fewer muscle spasms, and improved athletic performance “did not differ by age strata.” Fascinatingly, adverse subjective effects were endorsed far less frequently than positive subjective effects, leading the researchers to conclude: “Concerns about cannabis mis-use and abuse in athletes may be overstated with the potential benefits…outweighing the adverse effects.”

While younger athletes reported more positive effects, they also reported more adverse effects such as increased appetite, cardiovascular issues like increased heart rate or palpitations, respiratory issues like wheezing or coughing, gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea or nausea, and worse athletic performance.

The researchers suggest that the stark difference in subjective effects endorsed by younger and older athletes could be due to the younger athletes consuming THC-only and THC/CBD products more frequently than older athletes. Additionally, younger athletes frequently consumed cannabis by smoking, vaporizing, or consuming edibles, whereas older athletes frequently consumed cannabis in topicals, tinctures, and oils.

An analysis of the data suggested that athletes who used THC/CBD products endorsed the most positive and negative subjective effects. Athletes in the “Other” sport category, which included swimming, winter sports, hiking, trail running, and strength sports, reported the most frequent marijuana use. 36.5% of the “Other” athletes used cannabis in the hour prior to exercising, which was more frequently than any other sport.

How does cannabis affect adult athletes?

The researchers found much higher rates of cannabis use among adult community-based athletes than they did in the general population, across all age groups. Additionally, in all age groups of cannabis-using athletes, between 60% and 70% of participants reported that cannabis helped them manage their pain, which indicates “the reported positive effect of cannabis on reducing pain appears independent of age.”

Younger athletes consumed cannabis for recreational and “combined medical-recreational purposes” more than older athletes, who frequently endorsed medical reasons for use. Recent research has revealed that the effect of cannabis on the brain differs based on age, with older brains possibly benefiting from exogenous cannabinoids in a way that younger brains may not.

The researchers note that the age-related trends in subjective effects “may point to a biological difference in response to cannabis exposure in younger athletes or a willingness to use higher doses of THC via edibles or smoking, both of which can lead to a higher preponderance of positive and adverse effects.” The survey has several important limitations. The study did not ask about the dose or ratio of CBD to THC. The sample was drawn from a limited group that was largely male and white, and the findings may not be generalized to the wider population. And it is unknown if these findings would be similar in a non-athlete population.

The researchers called for further studies with larger and more diverse cohorts, and studies that examine how age, cannabinoid type and subjective effect of cannabis interact. If you are curious about working out high, click that link!

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