Is Weed Really Performance-Enhancing?
When sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson won the 100 meters on June 19 at the 2021 Olympic Track and Field Trials, the world was abuzz about her chances of bringing home the gold medal in Tokyo.
But less than two weeks later, news broke that Richardson had failed an in-competition drug test on the day of her victory. She tested positive for Carboxy-THC, the main ingredient in marijuana, and was suspended from the sport for one month, starting on June 28, making her ineligible to race at the Olympics.
“Richardson’s period of ineligibility was reduced to one month because her use of cannabis occurred out of competition and was unrelated to sport performance, and because she successfully completed a counselling program regarding her use of cannabis,” the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) said in a press release.
This sparked arguments across the internet about how antiquated the World Anti-Doping Agency’s rules are around natural and synthetic cannabinoids. Despite the fact that marijuana use is now legal in 18 U.S. states (including Oregon, where Richardson was competing), it’s still on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list of banned substances. To make the list, a substance must check at least two of these three boxes: enhancing performance, creating a health risk, and going against the “spirit” of the sport.
WADA argues that marijuana is a performance-enhancing drug and health risk, citing a 2011 study published in the journal Sports Medicine that claimed “cannabis induces euphoria, improves self-confidence, induces relaxation and steadiness, and relieves the stress of competition.” The study also claims that “athletes who smoke cannabis in-competition potentially endanger themselves and others because of increased risk taking, slower reaction times and poor executive function or decision making.”
Sounds pretty contradictory, right?
What the experts say
WADA’s position is “untenable and out of date,” Jordan Tishler, M.D., a former emergency physician and cannabis specialist in Boston, Massachusetts, tells Runner’s World. “If anything, marijuana is a performance-degrading drug. … Peak performance—peak strength, peak speed, peak VO2 max—is not likely to happen when you’re using cannabis.”
That makes sense, considering the effects of cannabis can include impaired body movement, difficulty with thinking and problem-solving, breathing problems, and an increased heart rate—none of which will keep you on your A-game.
But here’s the thing: The effects of cannabis that could influence your performance really only matter when you’re currently intoxicated, says Tishler. “If you’re inhaling it, the effects would last three to four hours,” he explains. “If you take it orally, it’s eight to 12 hours.”
Of course, that also depends on the individual and their tolerance to the effects of the drug, Ryan Vandrey, Ph.D, a member of the Scientific Advisory Board at Realm of Caring, a nonprofit focused on cannabis research, education and advocacy, and Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, tells Runner’s World.
“If you use cannabis in the evening to help you sleep, there can be residual cognitive impairment the next morning,” he explains. “We’ve not yet established the window of time where impairment is no longer a concern.”
Vandrey brings up a good point: There’s not a ton of data on the impact—positive or negative—of marijuana on athletic performance. “People claim that there is benefit, and you can make a theoretical case that marijuana could be debilitating—but the fact of the matter is, no one has actually taken the time to do the science to figure it out. In the absence of the data, all we can do is guess and speculate,” Vandrey says.
What the research says
One scientific review published in April 2021 in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness did conclude that consumption of weed “does not act as a sport performance enhancing agent as raised by popular beliefs.”
The researchers wrote that cannabis consumption prior to exercise should actually be avoided in order to maximise performance—their research found that marijuana reduced athletes’ ability to maintain effort, increased heart and breathing rate as well as myocardial oxygen demand, and increased balance issues.
Translation: It’s not giving you an edge, it’s making you more likely to lose.
What does it mean for recreational runners?
If you’re not actively under the influence of cannabis, it’s probably not going to affect your performance at all, says Tishler. And that’s part of the rub with Richardson’s case: Unlike other drugs, like anabolic steroids, cannabinoids aren’t banned entirely but rather prohibited from being used from 11:59 p.m. on the day before a competition through the end of a competition—yet it can still show up in your urine anywhere from one to 21 days after use, resulting in a penalty even if you’re no longer experiencing the effects.
For recreational runners who are social marijuana users, the important things to keep in mind are how frequently you’re partaking, how much of a dose you’re consuming, and how it affects you, says Vandrey.
“If you’re using occasionally, but you’re taking massive doses, that’s a very different risk profile than an occasional small dose, and multiple times a day could put you at risk for a substance use disorder,” he explains. And “smoking is worse for your lungs than vaping, which is worse for your lungs than oral ingestion.”
If marijuana is legal where you are, you do you—but until there’s better research, don’t expect peak performance if you opt to ingest before a big race. There are still too many unknowns around how cannabis affects performance, but what isknown suggests you won’t be tapping into your utmost potential when you’re under the influence.