Cannabis consumption prior to exercise can lead to greater enjoyment and an enhanced “runner’s high,” a new study has found—though it is also tied to an increase in feelings of exertion from working out.
Published last week in the journal Sports Medicine, the paper from researchers at the University of Colorado found that using marijuana before exercising “may lead to increases in both positive and negative aspects” of the experience.
The findings held regardless of whether participants used THC- or CBD-dominant products, although people who used CBD reported a greater sense of enjoyment and less of an increase in exertion.
Authors believe the study is “the first to investigate the acute effects of commercially available cannabis on subjective responses to exercise in a laboratory environment.”
“Our findings suggest that, among individuals who have experience using cannabis with exercise, smoking or vaporizing cannabis flower prior to exercise may lead to increases in both positive (e.g., affect, enjoyment) and negative (e.g., exertion) aspects of the exercise experience,” they wrote in the report.
“Participants reported higher levels of positive mood states (e.g., enjoyment) when exercising under the influence of cannabis.”
The five-author team called the study “an important first step in a nascent field that has, to date, consisted primarily of cross-sectional surveys and studies examining the acute effects of cannabis on exercise and sports performance.”
But recreational users, they said, “tend to use cannabis for non-performance-enhancing reasons (e.g., enjoyment, pain management) and generally agree that cannabis does not improve their exercise performance.”
To conduct the study, researchers recruited participants from around the Boulder, Colorado who, in addition to meeting certain health criteria, needed to have used cannabis while running or jogging in the past with no negative effects and be capable of performing 30 minutes of exercise.
Over the course of three visits, researchers conducted a baseline assessment, a cannabis exercise activity and non-cannabis exercise activity. Ahead of the cannabis visit, participants were assigned to use “one of two cannabis flower products: a THC-dominant product (24% THC and 1% CBD) or a CBD dominant product (1% THC and 20% CBD),” according to the report, although because of institutional review board regulations preventing the team from mandating which products subjects use, participants could either accept the assignment or switch to the other product formulation.
On the day of the cannabis exercise appointment, a researcher drove “a federally compliant, university-approved mobile pharmacological laboratory” to the participant’s home, where they were asked to use the product according to their typical use patterns. Participants identified their method of consumption and weighed the product before and after use to determine roughly how much they consumed.
After being driven to the exercise facility, participants warmed up on a treadmill and spent 30 minutes exercising on the machine, with their heart rates and other measurements recorded. They then completed a post-exercise questionnaire and were driven home.
Of 42 participants included in the team’s final analyses, most reported having used cannabis in combination with running or jogging (32 people), hiking (24) and cycling (17).
“At baseline,” the study says, “most participants reported that cannabis increased their enjoyment of exercise (90.5%), reduced their pain/discomfort levels during exercise (69.0%), improved their ability to focus during exercise (59.5%), and increased their motivation to exercise (57.1%). Only 45.2% reported that cannabis made time go by faster during exercise, and only 28.6% reported that cannabis improved their exercise performance.”
Data from the study showed that participants during the cannabis exercise activity reported more enjoyment during exercise, regardless of whether or not they used THC- or CBD-dominant products. Participants who used CBD, however, reported a higher degree of difference in enjoyment compared to the non-cannabis workout.
“Participants reported significantly more enjoyment during their cannabis (vs non-cannabis) exercise appointment.”
CBD use was also associated with a more significant improvement in affect compared to those who used THC, although the researchers’ analysis found that better affect was reported by both groups.
Cannabis use was also associated with experiencing more runner’s high symptoms during exercise, with some indications that participants in the THC group experienced the effect more than those who used the CBD-dominant product.
Despite those apparent benefits of cannabis use before exercise, participants also “reported significantly more exertion” during their post-cannabis activity. People who used the THC-dominant product reported a greater difference in exertion between the cannabis and non-cannabis exercise periods.
Differences in other measures, such as pain and affective arousal, were not statistically significant, the report says.
The team noted that ongoing federal prohibitions around cannabis put some limits on the research, writing that regulations “prohibited us from employing a standardized administration procedure, which further limited our ability to pinpoint causal effects.”
“Additionally,” they continued, “as federal regulations prohibit the consumption of state-regulated, commercially available cannabis products in a laboratory setting, participants had to administer their assigned cannabis product ad libitum in their own residence before being driven to the exercise facility in the mobile pharmacology laboratory, leading to average delay of 32 min between cannabis consumption and the cannabis exercise bout.”
Because use took place at home, researchers also couldn’t blind participants to the cannabinoid levels in products. “State legislation requires that THC and CBD content be labeled on all commercially available products, and as such, participants were aware of the cannabinoid content of their assigned products.”
Authors also noted that an overwhelming majority of their participant pool (90.5 percent) already reported enjoying pairing cannabis with exercise at the start of the study, and that most exercised regularly.
“Importantly, this was a highly active sample of regular cannabis users,” they wrote, noting that participants were “all healthy habitual exercisers, reporting an average of 383 min of moderate-to-vigorous intensity exercise per week, which is well above minimum guidelines.”
Inclusion criteria also meant men over 40 and women over 50 were excluded due to safety concerns about cardiovascular health, the report says, noting that a “considerable portion of the sample consisted of non-Hispanic White men between the ages of 21 and 40 years.” Future studies, it adds, should “make active efforts” to recruit more diverse samples.
The study adds to a growing body of research around marijuana and its effects. A recent analysis by the advocacy group NORML indicating that researchers have published more than 32,000 scientific papers on marijuana in the past decade.
In terms of other exercise-related findings, another study published in July surveyed 49 runners and found that participants experienced “less negative affect, greater feelings of positive affect, tranquility, enjoyment, and dissociation, and more runner’s high symptoms during their cannabis (vs. non-cannabis) runs.” Participants did run 31 seconds slower per mile when using marijuana, but researchers said that was not statistically significant.
The positive effects of cannabis that the runners reported is consistent with the findings of a 2019 study, which found that people who use marijuana to elevate their workout tend to get a healthier amount of exercise.
Older people who consume cannabis are also more likely to engage in physical activity, according to another study that was published in 2020.
Similarly, in another stereotype-busting study that was published in 2021, researchers found that frequent marijuana consumers are actually more likely to be physically active compared to their non-using counterparts.
Separate research published last month found that sports medicine providers “generally have favorable views toward CBD and cannabis” and support legalizing marijuana for recreational and medical use. Most also said marijuana should be removed from the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list of prohibited substances.
WADA removed CBD from its prohibited substance list in 2018, but marijuana remains prohibited in competition by the international body as well as many other professional and international sports organizations.
An NCAA panel, meanwhile, recommended in September that the association’s divisional governing bodies remove marijuana from the list of banned substances list for college athletes.
Advocates strongly urged WADA to enact a reform after U.S. runner Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from participating in Olympics events due to a positive THC test in 2021.
Following that suspension, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) said that the international rules on marijuana “must change,” the White House and President Joe Biden himself signaled that it was time for new policies and congressional lawmakers amplified that message.
USADA previously expressed sympathy Richardson and indicated that it may be time for a reevaluation of the marijuana prohibition, but the group later followed up with a statement that went further by explicitly calling for a policy change.
The organization wrote that “President Joe Biden described the way forward best” when he said that “rules are rules” but nevertheless stated that the regulations may need to be reevaluated.
Another study published last month found that states that legalized marijuana saw significantly better recruitment for college basketball, although they saw worse outcomes for football teams.