One of the fastest growing sports in the U.S. is ultramarathoning. These races are not just long, like the marathons most of us have heard of. Ultramarathoners run from 30 to 200 miles. Not only do they run long distances, they often run up to 24 hours at a stretch in rocky and mountainous terrain.
But that’s not stopping the popularity. There were 1,300 races in North America during 2014, up from just 293 a decade earlier.
It’s also not stopping the use of marijuana while running. Many ultramarathoners believe marijuana helps them run better because it relieves the pain that often accompanies running long distances or for extra long periods of time.
Does marijuana help or hurt runners?
There is no simple answer to the question. Let’s look at what the experts say.
Does It Provide Pain, Anxiety and Tedium Relief?
Most runners and people in sports medicine would agree that marijuana use has been shown to relieve pain. After all, medical marijuana has been proven to relieve discomfort for many conditions. It also relieves nausea in cancer patients, so for dedicated runners who may feel nausea before the endorphins kick in, it can have a side effect relief quotient as well.
Runners also need to train steadily. Training, let’s face it, can be boring for some people. It’s easy to say you’ll start “later,” and then not do it at all. If smoking pot before a training run makes people able to train happily, it’s likely a good thing.
Marijuana has another benefit to runners as well. It can calm them down after a run. This goes for all runners, those who barely broke a sweat and the ultramarathon folks. It can soothe your mind and your muscles after a workout.
If runners are anxious about the next day’s speed, they may have difficulty getting a good night’s sleep. Marijuana use can help with that. It leaves you rested and ready to run the next day. That’s good for all runners.
Does It Change Work Capacity of the Body?
The scientific evidence is pretty clear, though, that marijuana doesn’t help your body run better. The reason is that marijuana is what physicians term an “ergolytic”— it interferes with peak athletic performance.
Cardiac output, the body’s ability to leverage muscle and other work capacity decline with marijuana use. Your heart rate increases. And that’s one of the things doctors are most cautious about regarding marijuana smoking and running. The rise in your heart rate combined with a falling cardiac output could potentially be dangerous if you have an undiagnosed heart condition.
Physicians are also a bit concerned that runners need to pay attention to what their bodies are doing. Marijuana use distracts people from pain. It’s possible that even a mild buzz may cause runners to overlook muscle aches and discomfort that are actually pretty serious — like a pulled muscle or minor strain — that need attention.
Some researchers have shown your endocannabinoid system, which is the section of the brain that feels pleasantly high when you use marijuana, is the same section that contributes to the “runner’s high” felt by athletes.
Even physicians admit the ability to recover through relaxation and sleep and the ability to be distracted from pain — all the good things about pot — need to be balanced with the cardiac concerns.
Balance Marijuana Use When Running
It’s best to get checked out by a doctor if you want to run and use marijuana, just to rule out any potential cardiac conditions you don’t know about. If you don’t have reason for concern, marijuana use is up to you. Take into consideration how marijuana and running mix in your particular case. And, of course, if use is legal in your state.
As the over 500 runners who flock to San Francisco to run a 5K race in the yearly 420 Games can tell you, it’s perfectly possible for many people to run a race, use marijuana and perform at a respectable time. In fact, the 420 Games were designed in part to show that people who use marijuana aren’t lazy, stoners or lack athletic ability. They aim is to destigmatize pot use for those who use it responsibly.
As many recreational runners and marijuana users point out, no one says runners shouldn’t drink after a race, and often beer is served at post race celebrations. Many athletes are also known to load up on either over-the-counter sleep aids or prescription painkillers.
Marijuana Presents a Potentially Safe Alternative
Pot is likely safer than any alternative. Sixty-nine percent of Americans agree, believing that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol. Because of this, runners and other medical users are finding ways to talk to their families and friends about how marijuana can help them.
People wondering whether marijuana helps or hurts runners need to monitor their own experience and use of running and pot. While marijuana does decrease cardiac capacity because it speeds up the heart, its ability to make training tolerable, decrease pain and promote sleep may well be very beneficial to runners.
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