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Will Cannabis Help or Hurt Professional Athletic Performance?

Weeded to the Top?

is weed good or bad for athletes

Many of the readers of this blog will likely have experienced marijuana as a recreational substance, as a plant which helps them calm down and have a good time in a social setting, with good food and music. A smoke-out would typically be peaceful, calm and spent on someone’s couch – marijuana consumption is usually not associated with intense physical activity and athletic achievement.

Nevertheless, there are ample examples of high-performing athletes who are well-known cannabis aficionados. The Diaz Brothers, Nate and Nick, are both world-class martial artists and UFC fighters and are outspoken proponents of “lighting up”. Nate is well known for submitting the Irish mixed martial arts (MMA) superstar Connor McGregor. Nick credits marijuana use with overcoming the behavioral issues which plagued him throughout his youth. He was banned from the sport for 5 years in 2015 after his drug test was positive for marijuana metabolites, a decision which caused public outrage and was later reduced to 18 months.

Four time World’s Strongest Man Brian Shaw, one of the strongest people who has ever lived, has co-founded a company producing hemp-derived sports supplements. The hemp-extracts Brian’s company produces contain a mix of plant-chemicals, most prominently cannabidiol, a component of the hemp plant which is much less psychoactive than marijuana’s main “high” component THC (D9-tetrahydrocannabinol) but credited with promoting improved sleep and anxiety release.

In a scientific opinion paper Mateus Bergamaschi and José Crippa discuss the question why sporting organizations would even want to ban cannabis use for the athletes under their jurisdiction. Their answers mostly align with the benefits of marijuana and hemp we have already touched upon: The primary criterion for making a substance illegal in sports is that it is performance enhancing, and cannabinoids can do that in two ways: One is the improved recovery from the physical and mental strains of the incredibly hard training world-class athletes go through. After a strength training session during which the body is taxed to its limits, it’s imperative that the athlete gets the best possible sleep and relaxation to get his or her body ready in time for the next training session. This recovery, and not the actual training itself, can be the limiting factor in the progress of many athletes.

Second, the anxiety release caused by cannabinoids can be a significant advantage in many sports, for many types of personality. Most people will be somewhat anxious when performing in front of a large crowd, and via broadcast even in front of millions of people world-wide. Other sports can be inherently anxiety causing, such as high-speed disciplines like downhill skiing, and a calm mind might be a crucial advantage in such nerve-wracking events.

Thirdly, a substance can be banned in sports if its use can cause health risks. These are not dramatic in the case of marijuana, but they exist. How much they entered the decision of many sporting agencies to ban the use of cannabis is not clear – smoking a joint does strike me as less dangerous than MMA or Strongman competition where the participants hoist around incredibly heavy weights, to the certain detriment of their joints (pun intended).

On top of these real or potential effects of cannabinoids, the authors also cite a vague reference to “violation of the spirit of sport” which should or could make cannabis illegal for athletes.

Curiously the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) classifies marijuana and the chemicals it contains as substances prohibited in-competition, with the exception of cannabidiol – the very substance conveying improved sleep and recovery, basically the most performance-enhancing substance in hemp and marijuana. What does WADA intend to prohibit? Performance enhancement or psychoactive activity? It the aim an “even playing field” or some kind of puritanical prohibition of altered states of consciousness?

An unfortunate side-effect of these restrictions and prohibitions is that it’s fairly hard to scientifically investigate the effect of cannabis and hemp on sports performance, which hinders us from gaining the knowledge to inform better policies for cannabis use in sports. It’s a catch 22: In sports competitions where cannabis is banned no one will volunteer as a subject for a study researching the effects of cannabis on athletic excellence. Studies with human subjects of the effects of mind-altering substances are always tricky, but if someone’s high-paying pro sports career is on the line this project is exacerbated.

Like with so many topics touching upon the use of psychoactive substances, society, and the societies legislating sports, matters are fogged by conflicting, and sometimes out-dated attitudes. Major League Baseball in the US has just recently revised its policy on cannabis: Once the training camps for the 2020 season start, players will no longer be penalized if they test positive for THC. An excellent move.

On a personal note, the author has bench-pressed 120 kgs while very pleasantly under the influence of marijuana, much less than strongman champion Brian Shaw, but much more than the average gym-goer.

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