Six Ways Cannabis Helps Athletes

May 12, 2023

Whether you’re a weekend warrior, an athlete that competes for a spot on the podium, or someone new to running, cycling, or another sport, cannabis is worth exploring. 

You might be surprised how many athletes, especially those who engage in long-distance races or other physically demanding activities, consume cannabis to help with pain, relieve stress and anxiety and provide focus. 

Let’s explore these benefits and find some cannabis options that might work for you.

1. Pain Management—Cannabis is known for its analgesic (pain relieving) properties and may help athletes manage pain from injuries or soreness during or after a workout or race. It can help reduce inflammation and swelling, which may lead to faster recovery. Pain relief is one of the most common uses for cannabis. 

The Science Stuff—Cannabis is comprised of compounds called cannabinoids, which interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS plays a vital role in regulating various bodily functions, including the sensation of pain. In cannabis, there are two main cannabinoids—THC and CBD. THC provides psychoactive effects that alter mood and perception. CBD is non-psychoactive but helps with pain. When cannabis is consumed, THC and other cannabinoids bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain and body, including the receptors that regulate pain sensation. This can result in a reduction in the perception of pain, as well as a decrease in inflammation, which can contribute to pain. This combination of mind over matter and pain reduction can make taxing activities like a marathon or centennial ride much easier for athletes. 

2. Stress and Anxiety Relief—For some athletes, the hours and minutes before a race or a long training run can be anxiety-producing with fears of failure or injury. Cannabis may help reduce stress and anxiety, allowing athletes to focus on their performance. In addition, the psychoactive aspect of cannabis can calm the mind and move negative thoughts away. Let’s be honest—consuming cannabis makes a rigorous sport more fun!  

3. The Runner’s High—For some runners, a feeling of euphoria or clarity experienced during or after a long work workout is the most enjoyable part of the experience—next to crossing the finish line or arriving at a final destination. The runner’s high isn’t fully understood, but it is related to the release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters in the brain. One of these is anandamide, a compound that makes exercise pleasurable. Anandamide is an endocannabinoid, which means it is a cannabinoid compound naturally produced by the body. Anandamide is part of the (ECS), . It is believed to play a role in regulating mood and pain perception and may also have neuroprotective effects. During physical activity, the body releases various compounds, including anandamide, which then interacts with cannabinoid receptors in the brain and body, providing euphoria. Cannabis, with its connection to the endocannabinoid system, boosts the release of anandamide and brings that body-mind-activity vibe together for the runner’s high. 

We highly recommend the book Runner’s High by Josiah Hesse, which discusses cannabis and sport in detail.

4. Better Sleep—Most people, at some point in their lives, struggle with a good night’s sleep. Above all, athletes need adequate rest and sleep to recover and perform at their peak. Cannabis’ relaxing properties, especially those with CBN and CBD, are known to help people fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep longer. Better sleep equals better recovery and better performance.

5. Increased Appetite—Some athletes struggle with maintaining a healthy appetite, and after or even before a race or workout, don’t feel like eating. This lack of appetite can negatively impact race or training performance and recovery. Some strains of cannabis are known to stimulate appetite—we’ve all heard about the munchies—but for someone struggling to keep calories in-calories- out balanced, cannabis can help.

6. Neuroprotection—Cannabis contains compounds that have been shown to have neuroprotective effects that protect the brain and nervous system from damage and degeneration. Research suggests that cannabinoids, such as THC and CBD, may have neuroprotective properties. Additionally, cannabis and cannabinoids have been studied for their potential therapeutic benefits in various neurological conditions, such as MS, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy. In some cases, the use of cannabis or cannabinoid-based medications has been associated with improvements in symptoms and disease progression

Smoking Weed? Not Me!

It might be challenging for an athlete to consider cannabis with all of the baggage the plant carries from reefer madness times and society’s view on smoking. 

Remember that smoking a cigarette isn’t the same as smoking a joint. Cannabis and tobacco contain different chemicals. Tobacco contains nicotine, a highly addictive substance that can increase heart rate and blood pressure and leads to serious health issues, including lung cancer. 

Cannabis contains a different range of chemical compounds, including THC and CBD, which affect both the body and mind and have not been proven to cause ongoing health issues. 

Inhaling any substance isn’t ideal for our lungs, so athletes who want to avoid smoking should look at the wide variety of cannabis options available.

Edibles—easy to carry and discreet for on-the-go consumption. Cannabis edibles, especially gummies, are an excellent starting point for an athlete. 

In Michigan, cannabis edible products are measured in milligram doses and begin at 1 mg and max out at 20 mg. So if you’ve never had an edible before and are experimenting—try something in the 1 mg to 2.5 mg range. 

We recommend—Pot Dots are candy-coated chocolates dosed at 1 mg each—great for experimenting. We recommend eating two pieces and waiting at least 45 minutes to an hour before having more. That’s a good rule for all edibles—start low and go slow. Terra Bites, also chocolate, are dosed at 5 mg. And TreeTown offers Mango Recover with 3 mg of THC and 15 mg of CBD. Other gummie brands can be cut into desired doses/pieces. Then, you can pop gummies into your fuel belt and hit the road. 

Vapes—it’s smoking, but it’s not. Cannabis is concentrated and processed into a cartridge, brought to temperature with a pen battery and inhaled. It’s easy to handle on the go, less harsh than smoking if you don’t inhale too deeply, and provides a fast high. Look for live resin vapes for the best effect and taste.

Tinctures are another easy way to consume cannabis on the go. Formulated with cannabis extracts and preserved in an oil or a small amount of alcohol, a tincture can be taken under the tongue or dropped into your water bottle. Tinctures are easy to dose, and the packaging will describe the amount of THC in a dropper. If you’re not a fan of candy, this is a good option.

Cannabis balm and transdermal patches are great for direct pain relief on joints or muscles that ache. You can use it before or after an athletic endeavor. If you’re not used to cannabis or new to it, you can feel a bit of a buzz from these products, but not what you’d receive from smoking or eating cannabis.

Less is More With Cannabis 

Microdosing is popular with athletes who compete in long-haul events—like 100-mile endurance races. They consume small amounts of cannabis—one or two hits from a vape pen or a low dose of an edible during the event. This small amount provides the properties we wrote about above but without the “Wow, I’m really high” feeling. 

One runner told us that she takes a small dose of an edible—5 mg before a long run and really doesn’t notice that she’s high per se until she’s totally taking in the sights and sounds of the run. “I enjoy the smell of the air, the look of the trees and grass, the sound of my shoes on the pavement and the songs in my head much more with cannabis and I’m less focused on the work of running. Weed makes running fun again.”

If you’re an athlete looking for advice or ideas, Pharmhouse Pham is more than happy to direct you to the products we’ve mentioned here. Casey, Pharmhouse’s owner is a runner and said this: “I find Sativa strains or the terpenes generally found in Sativa tend to help me when I run or do extended workouts.” 

The use of cannabis is not allowed in all sports and may be banned by some athletic organizations. It’s always wise to consult your physician before experimenting with cannabis and review the rules for any event you may be participating in while under the influence of cannabis.