Weed Helped Man Who Hated Exercise Become Ultra-Marathon Runner

Could marijuana be the key to getting more Americans on their feet and exercising?

The stereotype of the "lazy stoner" is ingrained in our public consciousness, but a new book tells a different story: about the amateur and elite athletes who are using cannabis for the purpose of exercise.

In Runner's High, which is out now, investigative journalist Josiah Hesse explores this subculture, outlining how the practice could fundamentally alter our perceptions about exercise and cannabis.

In this interview with Newsweek, Hesse discussed how weed helped him to become an ultra-marathon runner, despite the fact he had never been interested in exercise. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to investigate this topic and eventually write this book?

It was something personal for me. I got into running because of cannabis edibles. Before the age of 30, I really hadn't been physically active or interested in any kind of exercise or athletics and certainly not interested in sports. I was the typical artsy, effeminate kid that got his ass beat by jocks in high school. Cannabis changed the game for me—it made me want to run more, I got really into it.

I started running first in the city for a few years, but then I started running mountain trails. I met lot of trail runners, a lot of ultra-marathon runners, and learned that cannabis was wildly popular with them.

The vast majority of them were taking edibles or vape pens or smoking before hitting the trails, sometimes during competition, which is kind of a taboo thing. And then when I learned that this was popular across all sports, that most professional athletes were using cannabis, I thought, "This is wildly underreported."

Another factor was learning about the science behind the endocannabinoid system and the natural "runner's high" that people have been speaking about for decades—that a type of cannabinoid is released in our brain after around 30 minutes of cardio. This gives us a reduction in pain and an uplift in mood that, from an evolutionary standpoint, incentivizes us to run long distances—to track down gazelles, for example.

How did cannabis help you personally with running?

The lazy stoner stereotype is something that's kind of a hangover from the Cold War-era War on Drugs propaganda that we've heard for a long time. And any relation to reality often is in circumstances where people are taking far too much cannabis. It's different for every person, but cannabis has a biphasic effect, meaning that in small doses, it can give you energy, euphoria, balance, coordination and focus. But then, on the other end of that bell curve, when the dosage becomes so large, the opposite effect sets in—paranoia, lethargy, incoordination.

Any runner, any athlete, who uses cannabis will tell you that they found a little window where they get that desired effect. And that was definitely the case for me. Mirroring what's going on with the organic runner's high, cannabis provides the same effect in that there are anti-inflammatories in cannabis that will reduce the pain in your body. Cannabis also changes your relationship on an emotional level to that pain. You're still aware of it. It doesn't go away. But your relationship to it changes and nothing else does that. Ibuprofen doesn't do that. Opioids don't do that.

The third and perhaps largest benefit of cannabis for exercise, at least for me and for a lot of other people I spoke with, is psychological. There's a variety of reasons why people don't exercise. But I think a lot of it comes down to the way they view themselves and the way they do the act of exercise. People think of exercise as a chore, as a discipline, something they have to get over with. Cannabis changed all of that for me. It became the centerpiece of my day, it became the treat, the reward.

Exercise is part of our evolutionary reward system, the same as salt, fat, sugar, orgasms, sleeping and learning. These are behaviors that evolution has incentivized us to engage in for the furthering of our species. Exercise should be in that category. It should be a hedonistic, pleasurable treat that you give yourself at the end of the day. A lot of that ancillary chatter about "I'm ugly, I'm fat, I'm not the kind of person who exercises," all of that melts away. Cannabis worked for me as a runner, but other people use it with tennis, with skiing, with bodybuilding. Whatever it is, it's like you're just dialled in to that experience exclusively.

It can be a catalyst for motivation. This was the case the first time I took cannabis—it made me excited to move my body, to have that mind-body connection. And I think for people who have a hard time motivating themselves to exercise, a small dose of cannabis beforehand can make the experience so much easier and lighter. And then gradually, you can work your way up to more challenging, vigorous activities.

How do most people tend to consume cannabis for the purposes of exercising?

The administration varies. I know plenty of people that like to smoke and pen vaporizers are very popular with trail runners. Especially these ultra-marathon runners. Ultra-marathons will go on for 100, 200, 300 miles, for days on end, and a lot of runners will carry a little pen vaporizer with them. That's banned in competition, but you can be very discreet about it. You're in the middle of a mountain, there's nobody around for miles and, with a pen vaporizer, the smell dissipates within seconds and it doesn't stick on you. So, people will take just a little sip of that and suddenly their mood is elevated and they're back on track after going a little crazy from running for so long.

I did a 50-kilometer [roughly 31 miles] run last April and for that I had maybe a total of around 70 milligrams of THC [tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis.] Typically I take 10 to 20 milligrams per run but this was like eight hours of running so I was re-upping every 90 minutes or two hours or so with a new edible. Smoking tends to bring you up really high very quickly, but it can also plummet you back down within an hour. With edibles it's a little bit more of a sustained experience that lasts longer.

You mentioned a few sports where people are using cannabis. Can you name any others?

Anything you could imagine—it's popular with golfers, bodybuilders. Mountain climbers are big ones—the climbing community loves their cannabis—and extreme sports, definitely. Because it's not the experience that people typically think about with cannabis. When you're taking a large volume and you're inactive, it can put you in this sedated, intoxicated state. But as the science evolves, we're seeing that there's a variety of experiences that you can have based on how the plant is cultivated and what sort of headspace you're in and the physical activity you're doing. But yeah, climbers absolutely love their cannabis for that dialled-in effect, for that zeroing in on the activity itself. That's one of the reasons that [the World Anti-Doping Agency] listed it as a prohibited substance because it can get rid of the anxiety of doing something really dangerous, or the fear of a previous injury.

So, is cannabis actually a performance enhancer?

When I get asked that question, I typically say yes, but not in the way we understand that term. Because often our minds go to steroids when we hear "performance-enhancing drug." The reason steroids are banned is because they're harmful to your body, but also because they give you an unfair advantage over an athlete who isn't using them. Two people doing the same training regimen with the same physical abilities, one of them is using steroids, the other's not—the guy who is using is going to be way up here. That's not the case with cannabis. There's a variety of ways that it helps an athlete, but it's not going to take you beyond your natural limits, beyond your genetic limitations.

But cannabis could help me enjoy working out more, it can improve my recovery. And when you enjoy something, you do it more often, you do it more vigorously. Research shows that having a playful, present-minded state, when you're exercising, or when you're doing anything, activates all these different brain regions. So you're increasing your mind-body connection, which has an effect on coordination. And for recovery, CBD [cannabidiol] may help aid sleep and it reduces muscle spasticity.

Any final message?

The biggest thing for me in terms of a message with this book is changing attitudes towards exercise as more of a playful, fun, hedonistic activity that you don't have to be disciplined to do, if you can change your mindset. This is something that we should enjoy. We have the mechanisms in us to enjoy it—as much as sex or food or sleep.

Investigative journalist Josiah Hesse
Josiah Hesse's book—"Runner's High: How a Movement of Cannabis-fueled Athletes is Changing the Science of Sports"—is out now. Glenn Ross

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