Is Cannabis A Performance Enhancing Drug?

Although cannabis has long been associated with a lack of motivation, the stereotype of a couch-locked, lazy stoner is being clouded by an increasing number of people using it in combination with sport – everything from weight lifting and yoga to snowboarding, MMA and running.

Personally, whether I’m building strength in the gym or going for multi-hour bike rides, I use cannabis to make the experience more enjoyable, more efficient, and more satisfying.  

So do many other athletes and active people. In fact, it’s extremely common among some groups, such as long distance runners and fighters.

Now, a first of its kind study will try to learn the ins and outs of cannabis and exercise –  most importantly, whether cannabis can enhance or hinder performance (or both) and how.  

It is hoped the results of the study will offer guidance to sporting bodies as to whether cannabis should remain banned and considered a performance enhancing drug (PED).

Cannabis in sports 

While some sport bodies have relaxed their policies as societal attitudes towards its use have shifted, the prohibition of cannabis remains one of the most controversial issues in sport.

The matter came to the spotlight earlier this year when American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from the Olympics after testing positive for cannabis, which is a banned substance under World Anti-Doping Agency rules. 

There have been similar congroversies in most sports. For example, Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati had his Olympic gold medal rescinded (temporarily, it proved) at the 1998 Winter Olympics after testing positive for cannabis.

Cannabis use is known to be widespread among professional basketball players, mixed martial artists and American footbal players. 

There is no current scientific evidence proving any performance-enhancing effects of cannabis, with one 2018 paper reporting “there is no evidence for cannabis use as a performance-enhancing drug”. 

The same study says that “the potential beneficial effects of cannabis as part of a pain management protocol, including reducing concussion-related symptoms, deserve further attention.”

New study

A new first-of-its-kind study at University of Colorado Boulder aims to shed light on the link between cannabis use and sports performance. 

The study, which has been labeled SPACE (Study on Physical Activity and Cannabis Effects), will see more than 50 paid adult volunteers who already combine cannabis and exercise analysed over three sessions. 

Researchers will measure heart rate, some baseline fitness measurements, and have subjects answer questionnaires while exercising sober and high.

Federal law means that the cannabis cannot be distributed or posessed on college campuses, so subjects will go to a dispensary to buy either CBD-dominant or THC-dominant cannabsi as instructed, before taking it home to consume.

Once the cannabis is consumed, a white Dodge Sprinter van – referred to as the ‘cannavan’ – will take them back to the lab for tests. 

Previous research

A previous study out of the same university found that 80% of cannabis users in legal states say they consume shortly before or after exercise, and most report that it motivates them to work out, helps them enjoy exercise more and improves their recovery.

Other studies have found that cannabis consumers get more exercise than those who don’t. Another University of Colorado  study found that of older sults embarking on a 16-week exercise program, the cannabis comsumers exercised more than the non-users.

“As we get older, exercise starts to hurt, and that is one reason older adults don’t exercise as much,” says lead author Angela Bryan, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and the Institute for Cognitive Science. “If cannabis could ease pain and inflammation, helping older adults to be more active that could be another benefit.”

How might cannabis impact physical activity?

There is evidence to suggest that certain cannabinoids dampen pain perception, and we also know that the receptors cannabis binds to in the brain are very similar to the receptors that are activated naturally during the runners high.

In fact, just 15 minutes of strength training each day is enough to boost your natural endocannabinoid levels and reduce pain and inflammation, according to a new study.

Theoretically, you could imagine that if it could dampen pain and induce an artificial ‘runner’s high,’ it could keep people motivated. Cannabis is also anti-inflammatory, which could aid recovery.

The researchers also note that cannabis can be also associated with negative effects, including paranoia, confusion and anxiety, and that hey’ll be looking for those effects, too.


With the discussion gaining more interest in the wake of recent controversies, many sporting bodies may be re-evaluating whether cannabis should remain listed as a “banned substance” due to its potential to enhance performance.

This latest study on mixing cannabis and exercise hopes to find the truth about whether cannabis enhances or hinders performance.

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