If this subject isn't your cup of (herbal) tea, I completely understand. I'm fascinated with both the runner's high and its cannabis cousin, but certainly don't expect that curiosity to be shared by all. If you embrace the outdoors, love to sweat until it hurts, and are bold enough to allow adventure into every part of your life, then believe me, you are already winning. No need to change (or add) anything. My intent here is to share what I have experienced for those who are interested, knowing that endurance athletes probably understand the subject more than they realize.
In a nutshell, my personal use is as follows. I am a card-carrying medical marijuana patient in the great State of California, and primarily use it for recovery after big endurance events, nights around the campfire, lazy days in the off-season, or if there is more than five loads of laundry that need folded on any given Sunday. I don’t use it during races, nor during or after training efforts, and if given the choice of some weed or a good Prohibition-era cocktail, I will take the cocktail 95% of the time. Unless live music is playing, that is, and then I go for both, naturally. All in all, I’m a cannabis fan and advocate with casual monthly use, but it is a very small part of what makes me smile every day. My trail running, however, admittedly borders on exercise addiction and is a big part of what makes me eternally optimistic. So there you go.
The Similarities of Running Long and Cannabis Use
First, it should come as no surprise if any runner friend of yours is found to dabble in occasional cannabis use. Both trigger the same chemical system in the body, known as the cannabinoid system, creating feelings of mild euphoria, pain relief, appetite suppression, and a loss of sense of time and space. The act of running long does it naturally by producing endocannabinoids (also called "anandamide"), and is likely familiar to any distance runner who has mysteriously lost track of time between aid stations because they were "in the zone" and grinning like crazy. Meditation, music, lucid dreaming, yoga, surfing, climbing, and other endurance activities are also cited as ways to trigger this natural state.
Marijuana is an artificial, and more exaggerated, stimulation of that same cannabinoid system. The two primary chemicals in marijuana - Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD) - are what create the psychoactive and pain suppression feelings by bonding to the same chemical receptors (CB1 and CB2) that endocannabinoids do. My personal experience is that using marijuana is about a 2-3x effect of the runners high, but as an artificial stimulant, will also have some after-effects as your body “overcorrects” from the experience, such as lack of REM sleep, the “stupids” the next morning, etc. (more on this here). A natural runner’s high, via increased health, actually helps your sleep patterns and mental acuity. So no surprise, your brain likes it best when it's naturally stimulated.
Since both running and cannabis stimulate the same chemical system, I’m not a big fan of consuming cannabis while exercising. Recent press has highlighted “22-year-old professional ultrarunners who get high before races”, running groups who promote cannabis use, and “coaches who suggest/use marijuana in daily routines”, but these athletes are few are far between for good reason. If you are already putting in the time to get the natural high, there’s really no need to simultaneously stimulate your system artificially. There’s also a lot less face planting on the trail with just a natural high, and let’s face it, if you find the need to do any stimulant while trail running (caffeine, ibuprofen, cannabis, alcohol, nicotine, and perhaps even music), you are kind of missing the point of trail running.
And if you are thinking about using cannabis while competing, it's worth noting that is still considered a banned substance for use in competition by WADA, IAAF, and the NCAA. [Ed. note - WADA did raise the limit of THC for their testing to 150 nanograms/ml from 15 ng/ml in May, 2013, citing the specific goal of only screening for those who use in competition, not casual users. It's for this reason I can actually blog on the subject.]
|(Yes, this is a Colorado-based running club!)|
Not All Marijuana Is The Same
One thing a lot of people find surprising is that not all marijuana is the same. The two main types of marijuana, Sativa and Indica, are quite different in their effect on the brain and body. The effects can also vary dramatically if it is taken in through the lungs (smoked or with vapor), or ingested (eaten). It’s all a bit strange to the unintiated, I’m sure, and an industry still stuck in product descriptions like "Green Crack" and "Romulan" aren't really helping. But it's worth taking a moment to explain the differences.
Indica (aka "Cannabis Indica") is known to be more sedating and relaxing, with full-body effects that relieve pain and can "lock" you into the couch. Parents will know Indica as that skunk-smelling, sticky plant your teens are trying to grow in the attic (it couldn't have been just me, right?) that has them watching SpongeBob Squarepants over and over. Think of any Seth Rogen film, Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, or Brad Pitt as Floyd in the movie True Romance, and you get the idea of the effect. It simply lays you out, and can involve a slight out-of-body experience that I attribute to most people who say "I tried it once and it didn't work for me because I just spaced out and drooled". The running equivalent is how you feel immediately after a race - exhausted, yet internally overjoyed.
Medical marijuana professionals typically recommend an Indica strain for nighttime usage, treating anxiety, mood disorders, pain relief, and insomnia. I reach for an Indica a day or two after a huge race effort, largely to keep my Type A personality from trying to get up and do things when I'm supposed to be recovering on the couch, which is usually the way I pull a hamstring or stress my back, not during the actual event. And believe me, a good Indica will keep you on that couch. One can go through an entire loaf of bread burning a dozen grilled cheese sandwiches because your brain can't quite stay on task. Not saying that happened, but you are warned. ;-)
Sativa (aka "Cannabis Sativa") is typically associated with a more energetic and cerebral effect. This is the type (also called a "strain") that gets your brain flying, stimulates creativity, and generally improves your mood. That great scene with Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda in the classic film 9 to 5 is more akin to a Sativa...you sit around with friends, thinking "what if's", and laughing your ass off over the simplest things. Then you clean the entire house, twice. If someone has said "I tried marijuana once and it made me too paranoid", it was probably a Sativa strain, because it really does get your brain going. The running equivalent are those moments of clarity you get when you are in a good tempo run, accidentally solving things in the back of your head every couple of minutes like how to organize your sock drawer. Medical marijuana professionals commonly recommended Sativa for daytime usage, increased creativity, and anti-depression qualities.
Californians will know Sativa as that tall plant that grows like a "weed" in the Santa Cruz Mountains and other coastal ranges, versus the shorter and stubbier Indica. Worth noting - grilled cheese creation can also be challenging with Sativa, but this time it's because you're too busy writing a new version of the Doobie Brothers "Jesus Is Just Alright" dedicated to "Grilled Cheese Is Just Alright" to watch over your melting snack. Likely you just end up nibbling the cheese and bread separately while you Google "history of the grilled cheese sandwich".
It's worth noting that most of the marijuana sold today are actually hybrids, or genetic mixtures of both Sativa and Indica, that are either Sativa- or Indica-dominant. One of the great benefits of legalization is that you can now visit a dispensary and know EXACTLY what you are getting. This includes the levels of THC (the psychoactive component) and CBD (mostly physical component), and the mix of strains. It's even possible to get a cannabis strain that has almost no THC and high CBD, such as the ridiculously named "AC/DC", which can numb your body without getting you high. This product knowledge and regulation, along with the ability to tax usage, is one of the many reasons I am a long-time advocate for marijuana legalization.
Another thing you will also find in a dispensary is a number of different derivatives of the actual marijuana flower - hash, concentrates, waxes, oils, butters, cookies, chocolate bars, gummy bears, breath mints, and just about everything in between. If you are curious, find a dispensary and get a walkthrough of the growing list of options. I'll just point out some important differences below.
For those of you who like a little background, cannabis has a fascinating history dating back to 300 B.C. It has been a part of medicine, religion, and culture for a long time. Not as much as running, of course, but there you go.
Differences in Consumption - Smoking, Vaping, and Eating
Since I am a California resident, I am required to have a recommendation/medical marijuana ID from a licensed doctor in order to enter a dispensary and purchase cannabis products. I was quite honest with my doctor that I was using it for elective purposes (i.e., recovery from endurance events), and he said that was fine, as long as I understood the proper use of marijuana and promised not to do anything stupid. It turns out this is an important point - if you don't know what you are doing, you can get into trouble, similar to someone drinking too much alcohol. For this and other obvious reasons, I wouldn't recommend anyone under the age of 21 use marijuana unless specifically recommended by a doctor (which also happens to be the law in all States where marijuana is legal). For the rest of you, read on.
The most common form of consuming cannabis, is of course, smoking it. Like that classic Friday's skit where he says "you smoke it, yeah, yeah, yeah", there a wide range of ways this can be done. Smoking marijuana generally brings on the effect in a few minutes, peaks after 40-60 minutes, and lasts a few hours in total. One of the big reasons that marijuana smokers don't take "too much" in one sitting, like one can do with alcohol, is quite frankly you get so high you begin to self-regulate sooner. I think this is one of the reasons marijuana is considered 114x less risky than alcohol, and has shown to not have as high of correlation with car accidents. But smoking can be tough on the lungs, particular for athletes.
A popular and growing alternative is to use a vaporizer, which heats the cannabis to the point of releasing the active chemicals, but not to the point of combustion. This releases far less carcinogens than smoking, and the vapor goes down much easier in the lungs. IMHO, it creates a more mellow effect than lighting up, and is significantly less annoying to people around you. Longitudinal studies haven't been done to truly understand if vaping is healthier than smoking or not, although some studies are saying it is 95% less harmless. If you are going to "vape", be sure to read the instructions for your device - proper usage takes a few inside tricks, like the right temperature, the right way to pack the ingredients, and more. As if often said, you need to "sip it, don't rip it".
|(A gentleman enjoys one of the best vaporizers on the market, the PAX 2)|
|(Cannabis ice cream)|
|(A Kiva chocolate bar - don't eat the whole thing!)|
As I mentioned in the intro, if your life is full of the outdoors, smiles, exercise, and gratitude, there is no need to modify what you are doing in any way or add substances to the mix. You are killing it! For athletes that are more curious about this subject, I hope this was a helpful overview, and perhaps enlightened you to some parallels with your cannabis-loving brethren. For those of you already on the cannabis train who haven't tried trail running, let me strongly recommend trying the more natural way to find that high you already love, and get out on those trails! I am, of course, open to any feedback, thoughts, and tips on the subject.
See you on the trails...
[In case this wasn't obvious, all postings, thoughts, and opinions on this site, including this one, are my own and do not represent the postings, strategies or opinions of my sponsors, advertisers, employers, clients, friends, or family members. Except maybe my pug, Ace, who enjoys having me on the couch regularly.]