Runner’s high: Marijuana’s evolving place in athletics
May 7, 2018
Four years after recreational cannabis became legal in Colorado, the psychoactive substance's role among athletes is still taking shape.
The ways in which casual everyday recreationists and elite endurance athletes use marijuana ranges widely. There are those, like ultrarunner Avery Collins, who love to smoke a bowl or take a dab of a sativa strain before their weekly runs through Colorado's wilderness.
"For me, it's more of an enjoyment factor," Collins said. "I just really can take in the runs, I don't use it necessarily for pain control, it's just something about being alone in the woods and also adding in some cannabis use that enhances the runner's high."
Collins, 25, is one of many runners across the state, and country, who use THC to elevate that endorphine rush. But for athletes like Collins, casual days out on the trail are much different than competition. The World Anti-Doping Agency precludes elite athletes from having THC in their system during competitions, such as during Collins' first-place victory at the "Hurt 100" 100-mile ultra race along the gnarly mountains of the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
"I try to cut back before the race," Collins said. "Especially on my smoking consumption. Post race, I'm one to indulge a little bit more in flower and vape pen oils. But the go-to is a CBD compound — it's the best route to go to recover from a big race like that."
For elite endurance athletes like Collins it's marijuana's non-psychoactive component of CBD, and not THC, that they are now allowed to use after a World Anti-Doping Agency rule change effective this year. As such, the Steamboat Springs resident is a proponent of Mary's Medicinal CBD compound, which he said provides post-race relief for his chronic ankle pain, reducing swelling and helping him to heal faster.
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The inability to use THC during races is no big deal for Collins. Though he loves his runner's highs, he feels THC would hinder his physical performance. He points to how last year he stopped using cannabis for five weeks prior to the Western State 100 race and noticed his determination and drive was much greater.
"I know for a fact that I was running some of my fastest training miles of my life when not on THC," Collins said. "At the end of the day, using THC will hinder your performance some. But what it comes down to for me is enjoying running."
THC's ability to help many Colorado athletes enjoy their runs, workouts and games more isn't that different from Collins.
Lia Arntsen of Boulder said it was a few years ago that she found cannabis made exercise more bearable. Admittedly never a "gym rat," before she began using cannabis and exercising, Arntsen found smoking a bowl before her activity motivated her to get out the door.
So Arntsen developed a goal of introducing cannabis to people who maybe wouldn't step foot into a dispensary. What her work resulted in is her You Canna Be Well consultation business, where Arntsen attempts to answer any and all cannabis questions.
"It's crucial in this cannabis industry to build collaboration and community versus competition," Arntsen said.
That mantra led Arntsen to join a group called "MJFITNUT." Antonio and Heather DeRose of Boulder founded the group with a core mantra of "Dedication to elevation."
MJFITNUT provides both an online and in-person platform for people to connect within the cannabis-recreation and health-conscious community. The group even goes as far as to develop teams to run popular races like the La Sportiva 200-mile Ragnar Relay Race.
MJFITNUT is targeting the "exploding" industry they describe as "CannaFitness." Including the DeRoses, Arntsen is one of 23 MJFITNUT representatives currently with the group. In Boulder, Arntsen's You Canna Be Well business has created marijuana-specific fitness and health classes, including her "Huff N Puff" fitness class.
Like the other representatives with MJFITNUT, Arntsen stresses that everyone has a different brain makeup and, hence, different cannabinoid receptors in cells that alter neurotransmitter releases in their own brains. As such, Arntsen emphasizes that what works for one person might not work for the next. It requires cannabis-indulging athletes to not only try out different dosages of certain substances, but to be open-minded to a wide array of products.
To illustrate the point, Arntsen compares herself to her 66-year-old mother. When Arntsen ran her first marathon, the Leading Ladies Marathon, she took a dab of a durban poison-like sativa concentrate before the race and during the race ingested Ripple — a water-dissolvable packet that she said provided a 5-milligram boost of THC and CBD, in a one-to-one ratio, through every 2-3 miles of the race. Arntsen then also applied a topical CBD lotion every couple of miles when her knees would act up.
Her mother, on the other hand, is relatively new to cannabis, so when she's running she strictly uses a topical lotion for her arthritis.
"I do really like promoting," Arntsen added. "Especially among seniors: Pot over pills. It's something they all should explore."
To Arntsen, marijuana enhances her performance, even if that benefit is specific to enjoyment and pain relief.
"That term often has a negative connotation," Arntsen said. "But ultimately if a product makes you more on-point, makes your coordination better, then I guess it's technically performance enhancing."
Elaborating on this different kind of performance enhancement, Arntsen points to how many athletes combine cannabis with caffeine to reach what they call a "flow state."
"One connection between body and mind," she said.
Get in the game
One of her fellow MJFITNUT reps, Cameron Nedd of Aurora, enjoys reaching that flow state not when running on a trail, but when playing basketball on the hardwood.
And Nedd likes to ingest heavy indica strains rather than sativa strains.
"When I started to smoke and play basketball," he said, "it helped me to not think about stuff and get into that zone. It enhanced my game."
The Maryland-native Nedd graduated from Penn State University with a kinesiology degree and eventually found his way to Colorado in 2014. He started up his own business, Consciously Fit, an online fitness and nutrition website in development that Nedd is gearing toward cannabis insights, personal training and meditation.
As a sponsored cannabis athlete with MJFITNUT, Nedd sometimes receives gift baskets of cannabis products to test out. And as an avid basketball player, one of the supplements he enjoys is Elite CBD Muscle Freeze by Mary's Medicinals.
Danie Oliverio is a Los Angeles-based MJFITNUT sponsored athlete who also leans more toward indicas when he recreates.
The 25-year-old New York native has also partaken in an event called the 420 Games, both in Colorado and in California. The 420 Games is a touring event that stops in Denver on July 21. At each location, participants have the option of running, walking, cycling or completing 4.20 miles in a different way.
Oliverio participated in the March 31 Los Angeles 420 Games event — won by endurance-athlete Collins. Oliverio described the event as just as much a cannabis-lover's-type 5K as an annual place for athletes to exchange tips, stories and new knowledge.
There are a lot of remaining unknowns out there for marijuana-enthralled athletes like Oliverio, but he knows that cannabis enhances his recreational performance while also leaving him intrigued for what's to come.
"You know," Oliverio added. "I'm waiting for a company to come out where you give your DNA, send it in and someone tells you what kind of cannabinoids your body needs. I think medicine will get there one day."
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