Pot and performance

Studying the positive connections between weed use and working out.

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Nicholas Witzke building up cortisol (submitted photo)

You always remember how to ride a bike, but the work that goes into racing a bike might be worth forgetting. After an intense hill climb, road-cycling race or training session, there’s a lot going on with the body. Cyclist Nicholas Witzke cites two of the things he has to manage: inflammation and increased levels of the steroid hormone cortisol from the fight-or-flight mechanism of the body reacting to the stress of racing. That’s when cannabis comes into play.

“Without aid, I often find it hard to sleep because of high cortisol,” says Witzke, who currently lives in Vancouver. “If you’re an athlete, you know the toll that training daily can take on your muscles is pretty high. So most of the aid that I get from cannabis is after.”

Witzke isn’t alone in using cannabis to give a boost with exercise. A study from the University of Colorado Boulder, published April 2019 in the journal Frontiers in Public Health, looks at cannabis combined with workouts. It included 605 participants, from states with legal cannabis, who were of age and filled out an anonymous online survey. The study found 81.7 percent endorsed using cannabis before exercise, after exercise or both.

“We found that the majority of participants who endorsed using cannabis concurrently with exercise reported that doing so at least somewhat enhances recovery from and enjoyment of exercise, while approximately half reported that it at least somewhat increases motivation, and a minority reported that it enhances performance,” the study says.

“the toll that training daily can take on your muscles is pretty high. So most of the aid that I get from cannabis is after.”

The results support the researchers’ hypothesis that people use cannabis as part of an exercise routine because they believe it helps with recovery after exercise. The study also found people who use cannabis with exercise reported they exercised more and had positive attitudes about the co-use.

Witzke trains on a daily basis and has competed in road cycling for four years. While most of the cannabis aid he receives is after races, he also uses CBD (the non-psychoactive cannabidiol part of weed) prior to races to help with sleep. “I’ve always been interested in the health side of cannabis,” says Witzke, who is also a brand ambassador for Miss Envy Botanicals, a Vancouver company specializing in smoke-free cannabis products.

Part of the draw of hill climbing for Witzke is the balance between the struggle of the body and the meditative state while going up on a bike. “The mental state that oils get me into, it’s conducive with cycling,” says Witzke. “And conducive with a state where you’re just more relaxed and it’s easier to cope with struggles or pain.”

Recreational weed has only been legal for a year in Canada, and it’s still facing prohibition in much of the US, so research on cannabis use with exercise is understandably limited. Referring to itself as a foundational study, the Boulder study recommends further research. For example, it didn’t look into the negative consequences of co-use of exercise and cannabis.

Whatever the benefits associated with weed around exercise, many athletes in Canada have to keep away from all things cannabis. The World Anti-Doping Agency includes cannabinoids as a banned substance. This includes natural and synthetic versions of THC and every other cannabinoid except for CBD, which was removed from the list in 2018.

The list provided by WADA is also used by the Canadian Anti-Doping Program and enforced by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport. This means that despite cannabis being legal in Canada, athletes in sports federations partnered with the CCES—including U Sports, the Canada Soccer Association and Hockey Canada—still can’t use it. As for CBD, the CCES warns that CBD products can still contain THC and that “the use of CBD oil is at an athlete’s own risk.”

Witzke also uses THC, but is careful with it because, like WADA, the Union Cycliste Internationale body that rules cycling only allows for CBD. “Depending on the race I’m entering, I have to be wary of how far ahead of time I consume THC,” he says. “But CBD is fair game.”

Witzke says people should be in cycling for the love and enjoyment of the sport. For him, cannabis provides a big health benefit that outweighs any stigma or potential consequences of using cannabis. “I just think it’s such a wonderful, powerful plant and I want to be as much an advocate as I can for it.”

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