Weed and Exercise: Why Some People Use Cannabis Before a Workout

The first time Samantha O’Brien took a boxing class at her building’s gym, she was overwhelmed with anxiety. The instructor was loud and intimidating and ran the class like a boot camp. If someone fell behind, everyone had to work harder.

Ms. O’Brien, 36, left the class thinking she’d never return. A few days later, her partner came home with some cannabis gummies he said might offer her a burst of energy. She thought of the boxing class, and how she wanted to show the instructor he hadn’t scared her off. So she ate half a gummy, got into her workout clothes and went to the class.

The shouting didn’t bother her anymore. “I was brighter, lighter,” Ms. O’Brien said, adding that the small dose kept her going through the session. Now she frequently mixes cannabis and exercise, regularly attending the boxing class along with Pilates and boot camp workouts after taking weed products.

Scientists have refuted the idea that marijuana is a performance enhancer for competitive athletes. But some amateurs are turning to it before exercise because it eases their chronic pain and anxiety — or just because it makes working out more fun.

Alex Friedrichs, 30, a manager of a chiropractic clinic in Vancouver, Canada, said that cannabis puts her in the moment during exercise. “I appreciate what my body is capable of, what my body is doing and the things I’m seeing around me,” she explained, “like running in a beautiful area or a pretty day.”

In a small 2019 study, the top reasons people used cannabis before exercise were to increase enjoyment and focus. But close behind was pain relief. Research has shown that marijuana can help some patients alleviate chronic pain, which affects some one in five people around the world. When the pain is treated, people become more functional, said Dr. Alan Bell, a physician and assistant professor at the University of Toronto who was the lead author on a set of clinical practice guidelines for using cannabis to treat chronic pain.

Cannabis “may bring muscle relaxation or a sense of ease, and so it allows people to increase and maintain their physical function,” said Dr. Deondra Asike, an anesthesiologist and pain medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins University. She added that once people’s fear of movement was gone, some would find they could do things such as yoga or taking a hike.

That said, Dr. Bell does not recommend cannabis as a first-line treatment for pain, and only considers it when milder medications, like NSAIDs, aren’t effective.

Joanna Zeiger, an epidemiologist and former Olympic triathlete, was reluctant to use cannabis even after she flipped over her handlebars at the 2009 Ironman World Championship, breaking her collarbone and badly injuring her rib cage.

But after years of chronic pain resulting from her accident, she tried it. Initially it made her sleepy and dazed. But she eventually found a dosage that eased her pain and allowed her to exercise, an experience that led her to create the Canna Research Foundation. Dr. Zeiger, who was an author on the 2019 study, said that cannabis was not a panacea: “It’s a tool in my tool kit.”

For Morgan English, it wasn’t pain that kept her from exercising, it was anxiety. A history of eating disorders and mental health struggles led her to dislike moving her body and view exercise as punishment, she said. Ms. English, 31, said cannabis helped her get past some of her fears.

“I didn’t have anxiety about what other people at the gym were thinking about me,” she said about exercising with cannabis. “I was just very much in the zone and I was focused on how good it felt to move my legs.”

In 2019, Ms. English started a company called Stoned and Toned, which offers online workouts that combine cardio and cannabis.

This is not to say that weed can ease anxiety for everyone. While some people find it helps, it can also exacerbate those feelings, said Jill Stoddard, a clinical psychologist who specializes in managing stress and anxiety. And there is a risk that when someone uses cannabis to manage anxiety in one area of their life, Dr. Stoddard said, it can lead to dependence on the drug in every situation that provokes anxiety.

She recommended seeing a mental health practitioner for tools to address underlying anxiety before resorting to cannabis as a solution.

While recreational marijuana usage is now legal in 24 U.S. states, it is still banned in many places. The drug has a powerful effect on the brain and should not be combined with potentially dangerous sports — or with any activity you drive to.

Dr. Zeiger said people should only use cannabis before a workout if they have used it previously and know how they respond. She recommends talking with a physician first, to make sure the drug won’t have an adverse reaction with your other medications, and to choose a low-risk activity such as yoga or a body-weight workout. Also, it’s important to remember that cannabis can be abused, and around one-fifth of people who use it develop cannabis use disorder.

People who combine movement and marijuana repeated a well known piece of advice when it comes to cannabis: Start low, go slow. This is especially true when using edibles, which can take 45 minutes or longer to take effect.

Some said they kept a journal — or used an app like Tetragram, a medical cannabis log — to jot down how much they consumed before exercising and how it made them feel.

Otha Smith, the founder of Tetragram, runs about 30 miles a week. He uses cannabis to manage his joint pain, but said his first experiment was a bust: He tried a 10 milligram edible and never made it out the door. Finally, he settled on a 2.5 milligram gummy with a one-to-one ratio of CBD and THC, which he consumes about an hour before he goes on a run.

“It’s there to enhance your mind-body connection,” Ms. English said about the role of weed in a workout, “not to pull you out of reality.”

Hilary Achauer is a freelance writer covering health and fitness.

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