Can Marijuana Enhance Athletic Performance?


Ricky Williams, pictured here in 2008 playing for the Miami Dolphins, has been a vocal proponent of marijuana reform, particularly for professional athletes. That cloud in the picture? It's his breath on a cold December night in Kansas City. Jamie Squire/Getty
Ricky Williams, pictured here in 2008 playing for the Miami Dolphins, has been a vocal proponent of marijuana reform, particularly for professional athletes. That cloud in the picture? It's his breath on a cold December night in Kansas City. Jamie Squire/Getty

Wherever you think it falls on the Reefer Madness to Miracle Drug spectrum, marijuana is quickly — some say finally — gaining a measure of acceptance in the American mainstream.

Marijuana is a pain reliever. It can increase appetite and stave off nausea. It reduces inflammation. It can control seizures, and potentially help those with addictions or mental illness. It might even kill certain cancer cells and reduce the size of others.

This isn't pot-fueled propaganda. This is from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Some pro-cannabis athletes, as detailed in a recent Sports Illustrated piece, are convinced that marijuana can enhance athletic performance, too.

Scientifically speaking, that's not nearly as clear. Cannabis is not considered performance-enhancing. Even the NFL labels it as a drug of abuse, not a performance-enhancing drug (PED). The general consensus is that you're not at your best if you're playing high.

Still, marijuana can help athletes feel less sore, reduce inflammation and help them sleep better. And all those things, of course, could help their performance. Amanda Reiman, the manager of Marijuana Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance and a lecturer in the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley, explains:

"I think that for athletes, really the best way that cannabis can help them right now is in recovery, in between exercise sessions, between games. For folks who are looking for something that is going to help with the pain, that is going to help with the inflammation, but they don't want to take opiates and they don't want to take a ton of Tylenol or ibuprofen or other anti-inflammatories, cannabis is a great alternative. And you don't have to get high. You don't even have to smoke it."

Former University of Miami and Canadian Football League player Rohan Marley, the son of reggae great Bob Marley, told SI that marijuana helped him focus in his playing days. He said he smoked marijuana once and ran a half-marathon — without any training. "It takes you to that place of, like, no resistance," he said.

Triathlete Clifford Drusinsky has similar stories, telling Men's Journal that, "Marijuana relaxes me and allows me to go into a controlled, meditational place. When I get high, I train smarter and focus on form."

Professional fighter Nick Diaz was open about his use of marijuana while on suspension from the UFC. He told High Times that, "If I'm at home and I'm training — doing my same things every day — then I'm definitely going to want to use cannabis. It's gonna help. I'm trying to stay focused on what I'm doing ... If I'm going to train all day, when I get done, I'm gonna want to smoke. If I have to go and train all day, before I go, I'm gonna want to smoke."

Of course, things are never quite that cut-and-dried with marijuana. Largely because of its Reefer Madness image of yore, marijuana was effectively criminalized in 1937 and stayed that way throughout the United States until 1996, when California became the first state to approve its use medically. But marijuana is, in fact, still illegal under federal law.

Things are changing, though, and rapidly. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia now have legalized marijuana for medical use. Some limit use to cannabidiol (CBD), the chemical in cannabis that does not affect mind or mood. (THC is the compound most often associated with the legendary "high.") A handful of states have legalized marijuana's recreational use, too.

And more states are likely to join. Many have marijuana measures on the ballot this fall, so a majority of U.S. states could soon have laws that OK marijuana for medical use, for recreation or for both.

It's a long way from the '70s and the War on Drugs.

The growing acceptance of marijuana is leading to further research and a burgeoning medical marijuana industry in the U.S. You can now get cannabis in pills, drops, edibles (mints and chocolates!), smokeables (joints or vapor), in lotions, in topicals, even in transdermal patches. And, as Reiman says, you can use CBD without THC, if you're concerned about getting stoned.

"With legalization," she says, "what we really get, which is one of the things that isn't talked about that much, is this innovation of product development that allows so many more people to benefit from cannabis without the side effects that they want to avoid."

It's an exciting time for those who might immediately benefit, Reiman says, and for those who may just want to see if marijuana can help in, say, enhancing their performance in the gym or in their daily workouts.

"I use cannabis in my exercise because it helps me exercise for longer without the pain. I'm not looking at it really to enhance my performance," Reiman says, "but I'm looking at it as a way to bike 50 miles instead of 25 miles, before the pain really starts setting in."

Reiman doesn't rule out that cannabis, outside of reducing pain and inflammation, actually will improve an athlete's performance. But with so many different factors involved — how much is used, how it's used, when it's used and who is using it — well, scientifically speaking, that's just not clear.

"I think it really depends on what each individual feels is their vulnerability in achieving the kind of outcome they feel they can achieve, and then how cannabis can specifically address that vulnerability, whether it's pain, whether it's inflammation, or whether it's just boredom," Reiman says. "That's the individual part of it."