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Running Stoned? The Effects of Marijuana on Athletic Performance

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Pot is pretty popular these days, and becoming more so every year as the push toward nationwide legalization inches forward. But while the culture and stereotypes surrounding weed are evolving, the effects of marijuana are still being studied—even as the way people are using it change. Consider this example: The more than 500 people recently ran a 5K in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park as a part of the annual 420 Games—and half of them had (legally) used marijuana in some form before the event. The 420 Games, a series of athletic events were, according to the games' promoters, established "to show that cannabis users are not lazy, unmotivated, or 'stoners' and to de-stigmatize the millions who use cannabis in a healthy and responsible lifestyle."

This all begs the question: Is running stoned safe? And could the effects of marijuana benefit—or hurt—your workout?

Not surprisingly, there's little research on the effects of marijuana on exercise performance. One small study from the mid-1980s found that people who smoked pot before working out couldn't keep at it quite as long, but otherwise performed about the same as those who weren't stoned.

Thirty-year-old studies aside, the research we do have suggests cannabis is an "ergolytic"—meaning it impairs aspects of athletic performance, says Iñigo San Millán, Ph.D., director of sports performance at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "It decreases work capacity and cardiac output," he explains. Translation: Your heart and muscles won't be able to perform their best if you're high.

When it comes to running, that may seem like the only fact that matters. But some athletes claim pot helps them get into a groove during training, and San Millán says there may be something to this. While different people experience marijuana in different ways, it's possible you might feel less distracted by pain or be better able to tune out fatigue while exercising high, he explains.

Research backs this up too. Marijuana is a proven painkiller, concludes a study from the University of Pennsylvania. More research suggests marijuana doesn't so much block pain as distract you from it, which could be pretty helpful during a grueling run.

"Obviously your mental state plays a role in how well you perform," San Millán says. "And in certain situations when reducing anxiety or pain is beneficial, marijuana may be helpful despite its ergolytic properties."

This ties into the old "mind over matter" mantra, so popular among distance runners. Many would argue your mental state plays a larger role than your physical state when it comes to performance. So even if your exercise output falls a bit when you're stoned, your ability to block out pain or settle into a mindless rhythm could lead to better running performances. In fact, research shows your brain's endocannabinoid system—the part that responds with a pleasant, feel-good buzz when exposed to the THC in pot (the ingredient that makes you high)—is the same part that fires up among athletes who experience a "runner's high."

On the question of safety, San Millán says running is a vigorous activity. Because marijuana increases your heart rate while decreasing your cardiac output, "if you have some cardiac condition you're not aware of, using marijuana could accelerate events," he says. "I don't have doubts about that, but we don't have much data on it either." Making things trickier: Your heart's reaction to pot may depend on how often you get high, suggests research from the University of California, San Francisco.

What's more, it's important during a long race to be aware of the information your body is sending your brain. If running high helps you tune out muscle pain, it could also lead you to ignore a dizzy feeling, limb numbness, or other signs that you're pushing yourself too hard and need to take a break, San Millán says.

Stepping off the track, many people say marijuana reduces anxiety and stress and helps them sleep. Research from the journal Sleep Medicine supports this idea. Since these benefits would help an athlete bounce back from a day of vigorous training, a little post-workout pot could be considered a potentially healthy performance recovery drug, San Millán says.

While he's not promoting weed, he points out that lots of athletes take prescription painkillers and sleep aids in order to help their weary bodies rest after a contest. You could make the argument that marijuana is more natural—and potentially safer—than swallowing a bunch of Vicodin and Ambien, he adds.

So, what to make of all this? Whether marijuana helps or hurts running performance probably depends on the individual and how accustomed she is to the effects of pot. But if you're considering a run after a joint, San Millán recommends first undergoing a stress test or echocardiogram to check for potential heart issues.

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