Mind and Body

Can Weed Make Recreational Running Easier? These Runners and Scientists Are Racing To Find Out

More and more amateur runners are turning to cannabis as a way to enhance their running experience — Is it working?

by Dawn Attride
Credit: Sam McKenna

On a cold winter evening in Brooklyn, New York, a group of runners gathered to begin their weekly group run. But before they started their jog, they did the one mandatory (though not enforced) activity that makes their squad unique: They got high.

The Brooklyn-based Rage & Release is a 400-member-strong community that provides an outlet for members to collectively exercise while stoned.

“It gives running a whole new feeling. I am more focused and connected to the experience,” says member Sam McKenna, who had arrived already high for the weekly jaunt and was waiting while others lit their joints. His crewneck was embroidered with “evergreen” across his chest. Another runner had “runnin’ high” emblazoned in neon green across her hat.

The Rage & Release community isn’t alone. In recent years, a growing number of recreational runners and marathoners have turned to weed to enhance their running experience. Runners say it reduces the pain that comes hand in hand with running long distances and helps foster a more holistic and meditative mind and body experience. In the lab, scientists are beginning to zero in on both the cognitive and physiological role that psychoactive compounds in weed play during exercise — something that could perhaps benefit every body in motion.

When weed and running mix

Runner's high occurs naturally in the body from prolonged exercise by switching on the endocannabinoid system — part of our flight response. Activating this system creates “euphoric and anti-anxiety effects following primarily aerobic type exercises like cycling or running,” Hilary Marusak, assistant professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Wayne State University in Michigan, tells Inverse.

Endocannabinoids kickstart this process by binding to cannabinoid receptors — CB1 and CB2 — which receive and translate chemical messages in our brains. In particular, the CB1 receptor produces that feel-good high, whereas the anti-inflammatory CB2 receptor is associated with pain reduction. In other words, your brain is happy, even when you don’t realize it when you’re doing strenuous exercise.

What happens when you combine naturally occurring exercise-induced endocannabinoids with THC? Both runners and scientists are trying to find out.

While the body naturally produces these endocannabinoids during exercise, researchers found that compounds in weed such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can bind to cannabinoid receptors and activate this system, too. “It's one of those weird systems where it was first named for the plant chemicals that [affect] our body's own system. We later discovered that we actually have our own naturally occurring system,” Marusak says.

But what happens when you combine naturally occurring exercise-induced endocannabinoids with THC? Both runners and scientists are trying to find out.

Marcel Bonn-Miller, a former researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who now works in the cannabis industry, tells Inverse that “when you smoke or eat THC and also exercise, it creates [a synergistic effect.] You're multiplying the [runners high] experience.”

Researchers at the University of Colorado tested whether cannabis products affect our experience of exercise, in the first study of its kind published in July of 2023 in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research. To do this, participants embarked on both cannabis-fueled and non-cannabis-fueled runs at a time and place of their choosing, whilst also taking a survey of their experience before and after the run. On their cannabis run, they reported significantly increased runners' high symptoms. Of the 49 runners, all but 2 enjoyed their run more, and three-quarters said their pain levels decreased during the run.

The Brooklyn-based Rage & Release is a 400-member-strong community that provides an outlet for members to collectively exercise while stoned.

Credit: Sam McKenna

The only well-known study to test cannabis’ effects on runner’s high in humans was a follow-up to the University of Colorado’s July study. The Colorado group confirmed the cannabis-induced runners high in a lab-controlled setting. (They published their work this past December.) This time, the runners smoked or vaped cannabis with either higher levels of CBD or THC, before running on a treadmill for 30 minutes. The cannabis run was more enjoyable — with lower pain levels and intensified runners' high symptoms — for both groups, but particularly for those who used cannabis higher in CBD. However, the researchers remain skeptical of CBD’s influence: “It’s more likely that it’s an interaction between THC and CBD, although we don't know what the optimal ratio is for different effects. But [in this study] the CBD group had a more intense effect,” says Angela Bryan, author of the studies and professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Thai Richards, the founder of Rage & Release ran this past year’s New York City Marathon high (as he does with most of his runs). “Cannabis is perfect for marathons and distance running because of its pain-killing properties. You can have a really easy run compared to somebody who's just relying on gels and ibuprofen,” he says.

THC is thought to help relieve pain by interacting with our bodies' cannabinoid receptors that are involved in inflammation and immune responses. CBD's interaction with the endocannabinoid system is largely unknown, but we know that it doesn’t bind directly to cannabinoid receptors. Instead, it appears to stop endocannabinoid breakdown, so their positive effects last longer in the body.

Running faster is far from the point

Cannabis is the second most commonly used substance amongst athletes recreationally, but negative attitudes around its use in fitness still prevail, particularly around whether or not weed can enhance athletic performance.

Interestingly, on their cannabis-induced run, participants in the July 2023 study ran 31 seconds per mile slower than those who didn’t use cannabis. And in the follow-up December study, THC runners reported feeling higher levels of exertion during their treadmill run. Many runners argue that it's obvious cannabis won’t help you perform better. “The bottom-line finding is that cannabis before exercise seems to increase positive mood and enjoyment during exercise, whether you use THC or CBD. But THC products specifically may make exercise feel more effortful,” Laurel Gibson, a co-author of both studies and a research fellow with CU’s Center for Health and Addiction, said in a press release connected to the December study.

And for those with Rage & Release, running faster is far from the point. “It helps me focus on my run and relieve anxiety and overthinking from my data-driven job,” says Kim Belanfanti, a cancer researcher and Rage & Release member for over 3 years.

Negative attitudes around cannabis use in fitness still prevail, particularly around whether or not weed can enhance athletic performance. For those with Rage & Release, running faster is far from the point.

Credit: Sam McKenna

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) lists cannabinoids as a banned substance, and nearly all marathons, especially those that give out prize money, follow WADA rules. But many recreational athletes know they aren't going to the podium, and often don't want to. Cannabis companies have taken note, and even partially sponsored some marathons in recent years.

Perhaps the case that brought this issue to the spotlight was back in 2021 when American sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson tested positive for marijuana shortly after the track and field Olympic trials, barring her from competing in that year’s Tokyo Olympic games. The story ignited a widespread backlash online, arguing that there’s no science to support marijuana being named a performance enhancer, and others noting that the cannabis ban is rooted in racist beliefs.

Racial stereotypes have been an obstacle for Thai Richard’s cannabis wellness brand development, he says. “I'm a big black man smoking weed and leading these runs. If it had been a white dude, there might not have been as much blowback — nobody really questions white culture and cannabis; they just see it as maybe some hippy-dippy [stuff], but a black dude doing it is the complete opposite.”

Acceptance of cannabis use in fitness may come with time, Richards says, referring to the obstacles he faced when developing Rage & Release. “I wanted to start a community that was a positive reflection of cannabis in the fitness realm.”

How to run high

THC can cause drowsiness and nausea. The University of Colorado’s Angela Bryan recommends those who want to incorporate cannabis into their fitness routines to “start low and go slow,” – starting with a low dosage and waiting for the effects to begin before consuming more.

Smoking weed is only a small part of the running journey, Richards says. “With or without cannabis, running is good for mental health – when you commit to something more than yourself, you increase your quality of life.” This attitude transcends into his running group as they transform Prospect Heights into their collective treadmill. Music pulses from the speaker in Richard's hand raised in the air — the leading signal that navigates the runners as they weave through Brooklyn's dimly lit streets into the night.

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