Runner's High

Is Weed What’s Missing From Your Workout Routine?

Cannabis and exercise may not seem like the most likely duo, but emerging research suggests it might be the secret ingredient for making workouts more fun.

Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images
The Fatherly Guide To Weed

The elusive “runner’s high” is probably more attainable if you sprinkle a little weed on your workout. At least, that’s what former collegiate and professional runner Chris Barnicle would do. Barnicle had to hide or limit his cannabis runs when he was a pro, like when he qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympic trials in Los Angeles in 2013 before retiring from the sport in 2014. But because weed was legal and he was no longer a competing pro athlete, Barnicle decided to compete in the Olympic trials one last time, with the new self-proclaimed title “World’s Fastest Stoner.”

With no scholarships or corporate sponsorships to lose, he finally got to run his way. And what that meant was taking “quite a few” edibles before the race.

“I was so stoned, I felt like I talked to God,” Barnicle tells Fatherly. Now a parent himself working on the cultivation side of the cannabis industry, he looks back at the trials with a sense of humor. “It is kind of hilarious; I have the slowest marathon time in the Olympic trials history,” Barnicle laughs. “No man or woman has run slower than I did in 2016.”

As cannabis use has become destigmatized and normalized among ex-athletes like Barnicle, Calvin Johnson, and average guys at the gym, it’s become increasingly clear — at least anecdotally — that marijuana might make working out less painful and more enjoyable. And scientists like Angela Bryan, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder, are debunking the myth of the “lazy stoner” by bringing together weed and exercise in the lab.

So far, we see that cannabis users who use it when they exercise, exercise more.

The Science Of Running While High

In a study Bryan’s team conducted with more than 600 cannabis users, 345 of them reported using weed with exercise. Of those who did, 78% reported that cannabis boosted recovery, 70% said it made exercise more enjoyable, and 52% said it increased their motivation. Perhaps most importantly for anyone having trouble meeting the recommended 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week, people who combined cannabis with their workouts got about 43 more minutes of exercise weekly compared to those who didn’t.

Bryan conducted another study on 49 adults who were monitored during 30-minute “cannabis runs” in the lab, which echoed comparable results. Her team found that smoking a little weed or having a bite of a gummy before a 30-minute jog generally makes it more enjoyable and aids in faster recovery (potentially by reducing inflammation) — both of which make a person more likely to stick to a running routine.

“So far, we see that cannabis users who use it when they exercise, exercise more,” Bryan explains. “On average, cannabis users exercise more than non-cannabis users.”

This did not come as a surprise to Bryan, who has studied motivation and exercise before. One of the key factors that separates people who regularly engage in physical activity with people who don’t is their capacity to enjoy what they’re doing. In cannabis studies, THC has been found to boost mood. And if cannabis could make someone happier when they’re exercising, “you can kind of see where the synergy between those two things would come in.”

Interestingly, Bryan’s team found that when people used cannabis before running in the lab, they felt like they were exerting more effort during their run compared to participants in the control group, even when the speed and incline of the treadmill was the same.

“Part of that is because THC does increase your heart rate, and that is going to make exercise feel more effortful,” she says. “What this tells us is that cannabis is generally not a performance-enhancing drug.” The one possible exception to this is with endurance athletes who report that cannabis helps them get into “the zone,” or a mental headspace where they can endure extreme physical exertion. But again, marijuana doesn’t necessarily increase their speed or strength; it mainly alters their perception enough to keep going in a long race.

I can’t guarantee it will make everyone get off the couch and go run a 5K, but so far we’re seeing mostly positive effects.

Cannabis is more experience-enhancing than anything else. You think you’re doing a great job even when you’re just doing alright during your workout, creating a positive feedback loop that helps you stick to healthy habits.

Bryan and her colleagues didn’t hear of any negative effects from their subjects about their cannabis runs, nor did they observe any negative outcomes when stoned study participants were running on the treadmill. That said, these studies included only people who already enjoyed cannabis, so they were less prone to reporting adverse effects from its use.

While early studies are encouraging, there’s still a lot researchers don’t know about weed and exercise. Because the genetics of cannabis plants and human beings are highly individualized, it’s difficult for experts like Bryan to paint with broad strokes about why some people happily skip their way to the gym, and others melt into the couch, after consuming it.

“I can’t guarantee it will make everyone get off the couch and go run a 5k, but so far we’re seeing mostly positive effects,” Bryan says. “It might not be for everyone.”

How To Experiment With Weed And Working Out

When it comes to using a little weed as a pre-workout treat, Bryan recommends to “start low and go slow” — meaning don’t take a full 10 milligram gummy out of the gate, or smoke an entire joint. Take a small nibble off a corner or a few puffs and see how you feel.

Although she didn’t observe injuries in the experiments, Bryan thinks it’s best to refrain from any new or especially strenuous workouts while introducing cannabis into your fitness routine.

Her team chose to study cannabis use with running because it has clear metrics that are relatively easy to measure than outcomes from other forms of exercise. However, the point of adding a little weed to exercise is to enjoy it more. So if you hate running, it makes more sense to combine cannabis with HIIT, yoga, or a hike instead.

It is worth noting that the current studies haven’t compared the differences between smoking and other forms of cannabis consumption like vaping or taking edibles, let alone looked at the impact of overuse in regards to exercise. Until more research is done on these topics, Bryan recommends erring on the side of caution and common sense. Smoking too much cannabis could irritate your lungs, making exercise more challenging in the long term. And overconsumption can have sedating effects that make it harder to stay motivated.

Beyond that, as long as you live a legal state, store your weed safely locked away from children, and aren’t driving to the gym under the influence, cannabis could be the tool busy parents need to get themselves exercising again.

These days, Barnicle is no longer a runner, primarily because he’s gotten into strength training and has difficulty keeping weight on when he runs. But when he’s not working on his cannabis plants or spending time with his 4-year-old daughter, he enjoys eating an edible or smoking part of a joint before lifting weights. He avoids smoking out of glass pipes because he doesn’t want to inhale butane from a lighter, but overall he’s less worried about the risks of smoking weed than about the damage he did to his body trying to cover up his use in college. From taking laxatives, to drinking excessive amounts of water, to running up to 90 miles a week, “I put my body through a lot of stress so I could pass drug tests and not lose my scholarship,” Barnicle recalls with far less humor than about his Olympic-level failure.

That’s why he feels strongly about advocating for young athletes who aren’t currently allowed to use cannabis. “I don’t think any kid should have to do what I did for something that’s legal in more than half the country,” he says.

For adults outside of the pro running world, trading in some speed for comfort could be what some parents need to start exercising regularly. Even if your cannabis run doesn’t bring you closer to God or the Olympics, helping you keep a fitness routine is enough.