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Cannabis in sport: a friend or a foe?

The Cannabis Act could lift the lid on research into cannabis as a performance-enhancing drug now that more athletes are opening up about using cannabis in sport.

The medical effects of cannabis in sport and exercise are largely unknown. Given developing attitudes towards the drug and change in legislation in many different countries, it is vital that more cannabis research is done in order to inform policy in both government and sports.

We continue to discover more about the endocannabinoid system since its discovery in the 1980s, and the question of whether cannabis in sport can be classed as an ergogenic or an ergolytic drug still rages. On the one hand, many believe ingesting the plant can improve performance, help athletes to focus and contribute to managing pain; on the other hand, some claim that using cannabis can decrease motivation – including the motivation to train or push oneself – decrease oxygen intake and decrease reaction times. However, the pharmacokinetics of the THC compound in particular can cause complications when studying the adverse analytic findings.

Cannabis has a long history with sports, and across the globe many top athletes have, and still do, turn to cannabis to help them focus on the moment, relax and aid recovery following sports injuries.

Research into cannabis in sport

The introduction of Canada’s Cannabis Act means that more research regarding cannabis in sport can now be conducted; however, several papers that discuss the effects of the drug during sports have already been published that can give us an insight into why athletes use cannabis and the effects it has on their performance. More research also needs to be done into the effects of the congestion of food stuffs containing traces of cannabinoids, such as CBD oils or energy balls, and whether this has any effects on athletes’ performance as opposed to smoking the plant or ingesting THC cannabis-based products.

A study conducted in France in 2002 showed that 1,152 sports students used cannabis during their training and sports activities in order to increase their sportive performance and showed that it was men who were much more likely to incorporate the use of cannabis into their sport activities. 1 Another study conducted in 2003 found: ‘As a whole, practising sports as an elite student‐athlete can be considered as correlated negatively with cigarette, alcohol and cannabis use. Nevertheless, this relationship depends on the kind of sport practised as well as the level of competition, and further research is needed to understand specific elite athletes’ motives for use’. 2

Published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, a 2006 study looking at what was known at the time about cannabis in sport noted that: ‘Renaud and Cormier showed that marijuana smoking reduces maximal exercise performance; when 12 healthy young adults cycled to exhaustion 10 minutes after smoking, exercise duration decreased from 16 to 15 minutes.

Driving and piloting skills are also negatively affected and point to the dangers of cannabis exposure when high levels of alertness and quick reflexes are required, such as in automobile sports. Thus, it can be inferred from the psychological effects of marijuana that cannabis is effective only in allowing an athlete to relax and to escape from social pressures.’ 3

More recently, one of Canada’s most prominent brain injury experts, neurosurgeon Dr Charles Tator at Toronto Western Hospital’s Canadian Concussion Centre, noted he was hopeful that research into cannabis could benefit those suffering from post-concussion problems after it was announced that 100 NFL players would be taking part in a randomised, double-blind study into the effects of cannabis on those who have suffered such injuries.

Anti-doping agencies and regulations in sports

As governments relax policy around cannabis some sport bodies are also taking a more progressive and relaxed attitude towards athletes using the drug in their respective sports – namely, USA Basketball BIG3, the NHL, and Major League Baseball. However, some cases of use in sport still result in a suspension, sometimes of up to two years, if found in the system.

Controversy over the detection of cannabis compounds in urine is a matter for consideration regarding regulation considering both THC and CBD can be detected in the urine of regular users for anything from four weeks to three months since their last use of the drug: ‘Quantitation of carboxy‐THC in urine alone cannot predict time of last marijuana use or suggest any relation between urine concentration and psychomotor effects.’ 3

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has included cannabis on their Prohibited List, saying that it is a performance-enhancing drug, a potential health risk and a violation of the spirit of sport. However, others say that the drug only enhances performance in the same way a healthy diet does – it is not the same as injecting something that can increase muscle mass or enlarge red blood cells and therefore increase the amount of oxygen carried around the body.

Athletes turning to cannabis for medicine and enhanced performance

Cannabis has over 400 chemical entities – 60 of which are cannabinoid compounds which directly act on our neurotransmitter endocannabinoid system. The difference between these compounds, namely CBD and THC, and their effects on performance is a pressing matter for sports bodies, athletes and scientists; however, the amount of research and studies done into the different effects of these compounds is extremely limited.

Endocannabinoids regulate appetite, emotions and memory, and the analgesic properties of cannabis means that more athletes are turning to cannabis as an alternative to pain killers. Whilst some athletes have been using CBD-based products to aid recovery and relieve pain and stress, others use products high in THC in order to increase their focus and performance.

Cannabis also regulates fatigue and so can relieve physical and mental exhaustion, making it a go-to drug for athletes looking for relief from intensive training regimes. The option for athletes to consume edibles rather than smoke the plant also means they can reap the benefits without the harmful effects of smoking.

Several Canadian athletes have been embracing the healing properties of CBD for a number of injuries and ailments. Toronto-based Muay Thai fighter Angelina Musicco suffered injuries from competing and turned to cannabis after being prescribed numerous pain killers, and Montreal-based former mountain biker Phil Dépault did the same after being diagnosed with fibromyalgia, both launching their own cannabis-based products businesses that include edibles and topicals following their successful use of the plant for its medicinal properties.

In Canada and America, a number of sporting initiatives set up by amateur and professional athletes similarly aim to incorporate the use of cannabis in sport and training such as the 4/20 games, Cannafit and NORML Athletics.

References

  1. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3717337/
  2. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1046/j.1360-0443.2003.00490.x
  3. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2657492/

Please note, this article will appear in issue 9 of Health Europa Quarterly, which will be available to read in April 2019.

The Cannabis Act could lift the lid on research into cannabis as a performance-enhancing drug now that more athletes are opening up about using cannabis in sport.

9 Ways Marijuana Effects Your Athletic Performance

Marijuana has never been more accessible—or popular. But how does it affect hard-training athletes? Here’s what we know right now.

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Now that marijuana is legal in several parts of the U.S., researchers are starting to debunk several myths about marijuana. At the same time, weed’s social stigma is beginning to loosen—so much so, in fact, that athletes and fitness gurus who laud weed’s wellness benefits are starting to challenge the stereotype of lazy, overweight stoners.

But is cannabis truly a miracle drug that enhances athletic performance or do its negative side effects outweigh its benefits?

We spoke to several experts in medicine, fitness, and the cannabis industry about how weed can potentially benefit or hurt your fitness.

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Is marijuana the wonder drug your workouts have been missing?

Benefit 1: Reduce Inflammation

Reducing muscle and joint inflammation is one of the most promising areas of cannabis research. Many studies have found that CBD, the nonpsychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana, helps ease inflammation. Now, researchers are looking into its potential to treat autoimmune conditions like Crohn’s disease, lupus, and psoriasis.

Adam Brous, a certified yoga instructor and founder of Ganja Guru Yoga in Denver, CO, uses marijuana in his practice and recommends it to his clients for this purpose. “I have worked with athletes who have found cannabis to be a helpful aid,” Brous says. “Typically, they’re dealing with pain and inflammation of the muscles and connective tissue or recovering from past injury or surgery.”

For athletes who want to reap the benefits of CBD’s anti-inflammatory properties without smoking it or getting the high, Brous recommends topical products. “Topicals and tinctures are incredible for locally targeted recovery in highly concentrated doses.”

Jamie Feaster, a former Division I college pole vaulter and current vice president of marketing at marijuana delivery startup Eaze, also turned to CBD for its anti-inflammatory properties when he ruptured his Achilles tendon.

“As an active athlete, it was a devastating injury and I was open to exploring alternative medicine solutions to help me heal,” Feaster says. “The CBD lotion really helped me understand the wellness benefits cannabis can provide. CBD is my favorite form, given that it typically delivers the best results when it comes to anti-inflammatory and healing properties.”

Benefit 2: Ease Soreness and Pain

Going hand-in-hand with its anti-inflammatory properties, cannabis has also been found to alleviate pain. This is one area of cannabis research that has shown many positive results. Marijuana can alleviate pain caused by everything from chronic pain to acute pain from muscle spasms, studies have found—and that’s good news for anyone looking for alternatives to dangerous, habit-forming opiates.

San Francisco-based trainer Zach Scioli of DIAKADI Fitness is an advocate for marijuana therapies to help with muscle recovery and alleviate pain from injuries—but he wasn’t always.

“Societal norms shaped my thinking about marijuana, but it doesn’t take much digging into studies to find that cannabis’ compounds are anti-inflammatory, stress reducing, antioxidative, and pain mediating, to name just a few benefits,” Scioli explains. After suffering a slipped disc in his lower back, he was bedridden for weeks and on a cocktail of painkillers. “Being prescribed extremely strong prescription painkillers to treat pain, I realized their high addiction and toxicity potential. I opted to try CBD oil and high-grade THC extracts to manage pain and inflammation. Looking back, it was the best choice I could have made.”

Christopher Louie, founder of Colorado-based cannabis startup Made in Xiaolin, had a similar experience, although his injury was more catastrophic. He credits marijuana with saving his life. “My passion for cannabis began when it replaced the opiates I was being prescribed for a gunshot wound I sustained in 2003,” he says. Specifically, he was prescribed a powerful pill form of morphine known as Kadian, and when the withdrawal between refilling prescriptions became too much, his doctor put him on Neurontin, which made him suicidal. “Since treating with cannabis I’ve learned that not only does it help with the physical pain, it helps me mentally—it has greatly increased my quality of life.”

Benefit 3: Treat Muscle Spasms

Another area of medical application for cannabis is in treating muscle spasms. Cannabis has shown positive results in treating muscle spasms associated with diseases like multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s, and its benefits could extend to athletes suffering from spasms as well. “There have been studies in rodents showing some beneficial effect in muscle recovery and reduction of muscle spasm, presumably due to the anti-inflammatory properties the compound possesses,” explains Erich Anderer, M.D., chief of neurosurgery at NYU Langone Hospital – Brooklyn.

That said, health application of cannabis is a new area of study, and Anderer says scientists need more research on athletes who don’t suffer from any of these disorders. “I don’t know any rats that do CrossFit, so more research needs to be done before we can recommend it for this use with any confidence,” he says. “The problem is that right now there is no scientific evidence it works in humans.”

Benefit 4: Improve Sleep

It’s no secret that THC induces sleep, but studies have also found that it can help people with sleep apnea and even suppress dreams, which is beneficial for those suffering from PTSD. Meanwhile, CBD can ease REM sleep disorder (where people “act out” their dreams) and daytime fatigue. Everyone knows how important sleep is to overall fitness, so this can be extremely beneficial to your athletic performance.

“I recommend CBD to nearly all of my clients for sleep,” Scioli says. “It greatly decreases their stress levels, which in turn improves their sleep quality and duration.”

However, marijuana’s effects on sleep do come with some caveats. One small 2004 study found that young adults who took THC before bed slept normally, but woke up feeling sleepier and with an impaired memory. The same study found that a blend of 5mg CBD and 5mg THC resulted in less stage-3 sleep, but better performance the day after on a number recall task.

Another benefit: Marijuana can be an alternative to traditional sleep medications, which can be habit-forming and come with a litany of side effects. “Eaze recently released our 2017 State of Cannabis data report, which found that 95% of respondents used cannabis to help reduce their sleeping and anxiety medication consumption,” says Feaster.

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Benefit 5: Improve Mental Acuity

Contrary to popular thinking, marijuana may not have detrimental effects on brain function. In fact, it could be the opposite. Regular, low doses of THC actually restored cognitive function in old mice, according to a June 2017 study published in Nature Medicine. Anecdotally, many of the fitness experts who spoke with us said weed helped them get in the “zone” with their workouts.

“Cannabis has helped my mental game and focus incredibly. Early in my practice, cannabis helped to reduce anxiety, and keep me calm and focused on one task,” he says. “Later, I noticed that cannabis acted as a catalyst to achieve a meditative ‘flow state’ that is crucial to success in athletics.”

Risk 1: Damage Lungs

“Marijuana can hurt athletic performance significantly if you smoke it,” says Anderer. “It has been linked to structural damage in the lung—possibly even cancer, although the evidence is not as strong as it is with cigarettes.”

All athletes know that healthy lungs are essential to your overall fitness, so they should be wary of smoking anything.

Scott Chipman, the head of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, cites the lack of regulation in marijuana production as one of the key reasons he’s opposed to it. “Marijuana smoke is registered in California as a carcinogen and contains four to five times the toxins, irritants, and carcinogens as tobacco smoke and 20 times more ammonia, a poison,” he says. “And, a recent UC Davis study of marijuana samples from four Southern California dispensaries found 93% of the samples tested positive for contaminants including pesticides.”

Of course, airborne contaminants aren’t necessarily exclusive to marijuana, and not all marijuana products are consumed via smoking, but the hazards are there nevertheless.

Sumetee Theesungnern / EyeEm / Getty

Risk 2: Impair Motor Skills

It’s no secret that, like any intoxicant, marijuana can impair your motor skills.

“Cannabis use can acutely impair decision making and motor coordination that can make certain activities more difficult, such as driving,” says Jeff Chen, M.D., M.B.A., the director of the Cannabis Research Initiative at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

While Feaster believes in the healing properties of marijuana, he notes that some physical activities shouldn’t be done under the influence. “Marijuana can be a great supplement for recovery after workouts, but I don’t recommend using high levels of THC when pole-vaulting!”

Scioli agrees: “THC should not be used just prior to resistance exercises. It decreases reaction speed and global stability—not what you want when lifting heavy objects.”

In the same vein, research has now found evidence that while marijuana may actually restore cognitive function in older users, it can be harmful to the developing adolescent brain. “Cannabis use during adolescence is correlated with decreased neurocognitive performance, changes in brain structure, and alterations in brain function,” Chen explains. “However, like with other cannabis findings, you can only demonstrate correlation and not causation in observational studies.”

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Risk 3: Increased Likelihood of Chronic Depression

“In medicine, whenever we look at the therapeutic use of a compound, we want to ensure the benefits outweigh the risks—and there are certainly health risks to cannabis use,” Chen says. One of the risks of extended cannabis use is an increased likelihood of depression. “Heavy long-term usage of cannabis is correlated with increased risk of psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia,” he says.

Depression can be detrimental to fitness, both by decreasing motivation and causing numerous physical side effects. Depression and stress increase the body’s cortisol levels, which can lead to weight gain, a weakened immune system, blood sugar fluctuations, and gastrointestinal problems.

Marijuana has never been more accessible—or popular. But how does it affect hard-training athletes? Here’s what we know right now.