The real reason working out is better when you're high
If you thought you were the only one who paired your pre-workout shake with a joint, it turns out you're far from it. A recent study of marijuana users living in states where recreational cannabis is legal found that 82 percent of people say they smoke weed before and after working out. Even more, respondents reported that they believed getting high pre-gym improves their physical performance and endurance, enjoyment, and motivation, and decreases their recovery time afterwards, allowing for shorter times in between workouts and thus more time exercising altogether.
For the study, published in the journal Frontiers of Public Health, researched anonymously surveyed 605 people about their overall health, exercise habits, and frequency of getting high. The results are surprising, particularly the number of respondents who said that smoking pre-workout made them more motivated; after all, while cannabis has stimulating and hallucinogenic properties when consumed in large doses, it's commonly experienced as a depressant, which decreases energy.
So, how do claims about weed as a motivator — and the belief it makes workouts more fun and long-lasting — hold up? Dr. Patricia Frye, chief medical officer at HelloMD, tells Mic that Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), marijuana's main psychoactive compound, “does indeed alter perception,” including that of time and space. So, just like how you’re often able to sit through a bad movie you'd never watch sober when you’re high, you might also able to better stomach a long run after smoking weed — especially when you're outside and have lush scenery to distract you from leg cramps.
Dr. Richard Honaker, chief medical officer at Your Doctors Online, adds that cannabis also has anti-nausea effects, which, as he explains to Mic, can improve physical endurance during intense, vigorous exercise. While high, you might be able to stay in tough plank, for example, for a length of time that, if you were sober, would probably make you puke.
The study's results are intriguing, especially considering that less than a quarter of Americans get enough exercise (30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity per day, five times a week), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report notes that some of the reasons people fall short of this goal include a lack of enjoyment of physical activity, low motivation, and overly long recovery times before they feel fit enough to tackle another workout. If cannabis can help solve those problems, it could be game-changing.
At least in theory. Despite the study's results, there's no guarantee that smoking weed before working out will give you more energy or improve your performance, especially if you're not already a marijuana user. In fact, “for individuals new to cannabis, THC can negatively impact performance,” says Dr. Frye. “It can impair memory, reaction time, balance, and coordination, which might increase the risk of injury.”
Using cannabis in order to motivate you to exercise can also potentially stimulate the cycle of addiction, says Dr. Frye. "By interacting with reward centers in the brain, frequent use of THC for the purpose of feeling good has some potential for the development of psychological dependence and addiction, especially in young men,” she explains.
Additionally, not every type of marijuana has the same impact on people; many are known to yield different types of high depending on the level of the plants’ hybridization and interbreeding, according to the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research. Frequent and occasional users also react differently to the effects of cannabis, Dr. Frye says, noting that “individuals who have been using THC for a long time and especially those who use high doses have developed some degree of tolerance and the intoxicating effect may be less pronounced.”
The workout study didn't indicate which strains of weed respondents used, and because the results were self-reported, there could also be some inaccuracies in respondents' smoking habits, as well. Further, the study didn't say which forms of cannabis people consumed before working out. Since quality of breathing is a crucial indicator of physical performance, according to the American Lung Association, and Dr. Frye notes that smoking marijuana can irritate the airway, it's possible that using a joint or bong rather than an edible on tincture can lead to a worse workout, not a better one.
Lastly, take into consideration that the study's sample size might not be emblematic of the American population as a whole, since California, Washington and Oregon (which were among the states profiled) have some of the highest concentration of physically active residents to begin with, according to a recent report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
With all that in mind, it's clear that the study is far from perfect, and Dr. Frye says she doesn’t believe that it — or any existing study — can truly “identify a mechanism or even suggest that cannabis is efficacious in enhancing performance.” Whereas a large body of research supports the idea that caffeine from coffee and energy drinks can promote physical strength and endurance during exercise, much more information is needed to confirm if weed really does help workouts in the way it's proven to help chronic pain, muscle spasms, and anxiety.
For many people, though, their own positive experiences of going to the gym after smoking are proof enough. And if you do like to get runner's high with a little help from the green friends and think that it makes the process a lot more enjoyable, take comfort in knowing you're most definitely not alone.