Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Marijuana, Cannabis, and Weed - One Athlete's Primer

There are few things in life that I enjoy as much as a runner’s high. That natural buzz that kicks in ~80 minutes into a run as my body slips into a primordial rhythm, my soul bonding with Mother Nature as she whirls around me and fills my lungs and senses with the feeling of flight...there’s nothing quite like it. In fact, I’ve only found a handful of life experiences that come close, and most of them aren’t nearly as accessible as a long trail run. Great sex, for example, or a perfect powder ski day requires a number of stars to align, such rarity perhaps making them all the more coveted. But one of my other favorite vices – marijuana - is quickly becoming more and more accessible with each wave of legalization here in the United States. Accompanying this is a growing amount of misinformation about cannabis from the perpetually aggrandizing media hungry for this buzz-worthy topic, including its use in fitness and endurance training. My inbox is growing accordingly with questions and requests for suggestions, so I will do my best here to give a primer from one athlete’s perspective.

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!)
I should note here that some studies have shown that cannabis use outside of running can affect you while you are running. One study has shown that THC is stored in your fat cells, and when you run long distance, you may be triggering up to a 15% dose of THC naturally as you burn fat. Be sure to keep that in mind the next time you are competing in a WADA-enforced event and have to pee in a cup at the finish line. ;-)

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.

(Brad Pitt plays Floyd in True Romance - worth noting that he also has gone on record saying smoking pot daily wasted a huge chunk of his life)

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 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.

Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin in the classic scene in the movie 9 to 5

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)

Another alternative is ingesting cannabis, such as the famous "pot brownies" your parents made, or the multitude of consumables available on the market today (ice cream, anyone?). Ingesting cannabis has a very different effect than inhaling, one that is much more narcotic and physical in nature. It can also take a while to kick in - often as much as 60-90 minutes - and can take 3-6 hours to wear off. For this reason it is very important to control your dosage and your environment before you understand the full effect on your body. Most consumables are made with a 10-15 mg dose, and one would be smart to do that or less to begin, then wait for a few hours to get the full effect. The number one fear of every pro-marijuana doctor I have spoken to is that somebody messes up when ingesting cannabis (or gets into the hands of somebody who doesn't understand it), and ends up in the emergency room or worse. In the world of running, similar recklessness would be coming off the couch and running a 100-miler, and also ending up in the hospital. But if you're careful, ingesting cannabis can be a wonderful experience.

(Cannabis ice cream)
(A Kiva chocolate bar - don't eat the whole thing!)
If I'm in a Sativa mood, I much prefer to use a vaporizer to get a nice psychoactive effect. If I'm looking to relax and have a large window of time to do so, ingesting is my preferred method (the Kiva chocolate bar is a favorite), particularly during race recovery. And of course, if I've got time to do a long run or hike, it will always be my first choice, and the smile it puts on my face is more than enough to rid any desire for cannabis.


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...

- SD

[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.]


  1. Great article Scott. You have certainly offered up some sound advice in my opinion. I had just read the other one you wrote a couple of weeks ago. With regards to your question if it is prevalent, I would not think so. I have never run while under the influence of marijuana and I doubt that will change. Typically save that for evenings or sometimes late afternoon when home after a trail race. Thanks for taking the time to write this. See you on the trails! Particularly at Marin Ultra Challenge.
    -Troy Windsor

    1. Thanks for the comment, Troy. I'm really looking forward to MUC as well. The weather in the Marin Headlands has been amazing this month! Should be fun.

  2. Excellent research and read Scott. Thanks for posting.

  3. great post, well said :)
    endurance runners definitely understand this!

  4. Thanks for the extensive yet succinct overview!

  5. Very informative, and gutsy to post. Good job!

    1. Thanks, Mom! Although these days, not nearly as gutsy of a subject to write about. The times, they are a changin'.

      Even your neighbor state of Washington DC legalized possession at midnight last night. They join 28 US states that have now legalized, decriminalized, or made cannabis available for medical or recreational use. It's a brave new world!

  6. You mention two strains of cannabis - sativa and indica. The only strain I'm familiar with is cannabis paranoia.

  7. Wow. Thanks so much for sharing. The only "substance" I am adding to mix right now is a good IPA, but this is intriguing... especially for post-ultra application.

    Scott - usually about 15 minutes after I am done with an ultra I am in serious discomfort for a couple of hours - do you think vapping soon after a race would take the edge off? And does this mix with IPA in a good way?

    1. Yeah, I know that feeling. It's when you realize how hard these ultra really are! Totally sucks.

      As much as I would like to say vaping could help, I think it's best to not take anything at all immediately after a race. Although it hurts, these are important signals from the body that help you understand exactly how much of a "hole" you dug to reach that finish line, so best to listen closely. Hydrate, elevate those legs, get some calories, a light massage, and ride it out knowing it will pass soon enough. Masking those signals with any substance (cannabis, alcohol, ibuprofen, etc) can not only make things much worse, but allows you to do stupid things like moving furniture the next day (duh...take three more weeks of recovery, thank you very much).

      I remind myself in those moments after the finish that I've earned the right to feel that much pain, and feel that alive. As soon as I embrace this, it gets much better immediately.

      SO WORTH IT!

  8. This is a great post. Thanks for sharing some actual details. Congrats on your recent sub 2:50 marathon. Proof that weed doesn't sabatoge your running.

    1. Thanks! Although for the record, I was 2:50 and change. Wasn't willing to sprint across the glass bridge for the final few seconds. :-)

      My cannabis use is infrequent, so it doesn't inhibit training. Daily use would certainly be another story altogether, but since I run daily, my cannabinoid system gets a regular workout already.

  9. Scott, you being so open about everything here is SO refreshing, and a great contribution. The world thanks you!
    Some of my favorite times for getting high involve physical activity, adventure, and being in nature, so over the years trailrunning & weed have been a sweet match.

    Happy trails, and may all beings everywhere be happy & free,

    1. Sounds like you are well in touch with your cannabinoid system! Thanks for the nice note.

  10. Scott - is marijuana legal anywhere outside of the United States?

    1. Uruguay is currently the only country where marijuana is fully legal (passed in 2013, going into effect in 2015). The Netherlands (Amsterdam in particular) has legal purchasing, and there are countries such as Spain, Switzerland, etc., where personal possession is legal. Jamaica, Mexico, India, and others are considering further decriminalization and legalization in the coming year, many citing the wave in the States as a catalyst

      India used to be the biggest country where cannabis was legal (it's used in many religious celebrations), but passed a law in the late 80's under pressure from the US. It will be quite telling if they reverse their policies, given it's about a billion people.

      Uruguay is also fascinating because all marijuana in state-grown...and predicted to be for sale at 1/20th the cost of what it is in the US. Nearby Ecuador is already looking to join the ranks rather than fight it.

  11. Fascinating post! Is this why all the ultrarunners I meet are so relaxed? :) On a more serious note, as someone from a non-medical marijuana state, I have to ask--is it really that easy to get a prescription for it? Even not having any medical issues? Or is recovery considered a medical issue?

    (Hmm...blogger can't decide if this will come up with my blog name or "anonymous" on it. I'm Emily, in case it decides I should be anon for some reason.)

    1. It's quite easy to get a doctor's recommendation for medical marijuana in one of the 25 States where it is legal, if you are over the age of 21. Although your classic primary care physician can do it, there are a number of docs set up in California for the specific purpose of medical marijuana recommendations. The ID is usually good for one year, and costs about $49-99.

      I've had some great conversations with doctors about how they "screen" for someone who is a good candidate for medical marijuana. The primary thing they look for is (a) you are familiar with the drug, its effects, and how to take it safely, (b) you know what symptom you are treating (and if there are other things that can be done), and (c) you aren't doing this with the intent to sell or distribute the cannabis to others. By far the main symptom cited by the doctors I spoke to is "anxiety", i.e., it helps people relax.

      My conversation with my doctor was pretty short. I explained to him that I used it occasionally to relax, particularly after endurance events (as explained above). He quickly summarized "so you are familiar with marijuana and how it works for you already", and said for 80% of the people who walk in his office, this is the case. I think he personally gets more excited for patients with less knowledge so he can get more specific in his recommendations, but he was great with me regardless.

    2. One additional note - by far the easiest way to get a medical marijuana ID in California is to use You can go to their web site, fill out a questionnaire, have a doc Skype with you to go over it, and be done in 30 minutes. The whole thing costs $25, and you can instantly order MJ and have it delivered to you. Ah, the Uber of Pot...

  12. Scott:

    You travel to a bunch of your races. What do you do in those cases? Is there a way to legally carry/transport with you? Or do you just wait until you return to the comforts of home?

    1. Yeah, that's a tricky subject. I don't bring it. It's generally not worth the risk of getting caught transporting an illegal substance (cannabis is still illegal at a Federal level in the States, and in most other countries).

      One of the reasons I love to travel is to check out all the local food, drinks, etc., so there is usually more than enough to keep me occupied until I return. That being said, I haven't raced in Colorado in a while, maybe I should head that way...

  13. Scott, thanks for your comprehensive article. For me, I'm interested in the effects around the 8-10 hour mark in an ultra, when my stomach often starts shutting down. I'm not interested in competition, so the questions of approval make no difference to me. Mostly, I want to find a way through the nausea. Sometimes I feel like I've trained every part of me, and I am ready in all ways to continue past that point, but it wrecks me.

    For my purpose, I've been researching high CDB strains, with little THC, since my aim is to help with this ill feeling. Mostly, though, and perhaps you can't answer this since you do not use cannabis while running, whether one strain would be more helpful than another (Indica vs Sativa). Perhaps you know some runners who use cannabis for this purpose? Anyway, thanks.

    1. Nausea is a pain in the butt, that's for sure. I haven't investigated marijuana for this purpose, and generally am not a fan of taking it during an event. But perhaps a quick call or visit to a doc/dispensary could answer your question. I don't know any runners who take it during an event.

      For what it's worth, I had nausea issues in the longer ultras for quite a while, and it wasn't until I got my hydration/electrolytes/calories dialed (and remembered to apply lots of sunscreen) that it became a minor issue. I don't know if any ultrarunner who doesn't run into nausea at some point!

      Good luck!

  14. Interesting article - thanks.

    One time I had brownies quite late in the night before a big training run. I woke up still feeling the effects quite heavily, and was worried that I would have to pull out - but a friend had traveled quite far to train with me, so out I went.

    I can honestly say it was the most enjoyable training run I'd ever done. I was able to concentrate but felt so in the moment and blasted both up and down hills with glorious abandon.

    Not for everyone as you say, but seemed to go okay for me.

  15. Guilty on all counts, however I completely agree with your last bit of advice: "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..." With the exception of the constant purchase of new footwear, it is significantly less expensive get out on the trail or partake in whatever fitness venture gets you there. Thanks for sharing!


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