'I get high to exercise': How cannabis became the gateway drug to fitness

'I get high to exercise': How cannabis became the gateway drug to fitness

2 months ago

Meet the stoners going from couch potatoes to 5K

Picture this: you’ve just smoked a joint. It wasn’t too big or too small, it was the perfect joint for you - Goldilocks style. You’re starting to feel the trademark symptoms of a gradual high. Try it with me now. Your shoulders relax. Breathing slows and gets deeper, slower. You become aware of the weight of your chest, lifting gently up and down. Muscles go from tensed to fluid, feeling just a little more supple than they usually do. The fog clears in your brain and for a second, everything is still. 

Now go do 50 push-ups, bicep curls and burpees. Gimme ten more. Now squats. Maybe throw a 5K run in there while you’re at it. Or, come to think of it, how about an ultramarathon?

Sounds strange, right. Sounds like the last thing you could possibly want to do while wrapped in your cannabis cocoon. Sounds like the opposite of a fluffy blanket, Seth Rogen movie and tortilla chips. But people really do it. And I can guarantee you, it’s more common than you think.

In a recent survey of 600 cannabis smokers by science journal Nature, four out of five respondents admitted to lighting up just before exercising. "Bring your own bud" and "cannabliss" exercise classes have started sprouting up in the UK and US, and there's a budding trend in influencers who pair weed with their workouts. Not to mention multiple Reddit threads and YouTube videos of people smoking up and then attempting to do Yoga With Adriene. How wholesome.

I’ve never worked out so much as since I’ve started combining it with weed

With many high-exercisers, it begins by accident. This is what happened to Patrick*, 33, from Ireland, who had committed to a post-Christmas fitness routine but slipped and got stoned one evening after work. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got nothing to do’, and so I was like… might as well work out. I was walking around the kitchen feeling quite loose, it felt nice, so I thought ‘alright, this is actually the right circumstances to give this a go’.” 

It felt nice, so he kept it up. Now, Patrick has never exercised so much in his life. “I’ve flirted with exercise before,” he laughs, “but never worked out so much as since I’ve started combining it with weed.” Now, Patrick smokes two grams of weed a week and works out between three to six times, using a mix of the floor press, bicep curls and dips each day with a target of 600 reps.

Kate, 23, marketing student living in Leicester, also stumbled into her high-exercise routine by accident. It’s easy to see how someone who is high for the majority of the day might end up stoned for a few meetings or other sober world events. This is exactly what happened with Kate.

Credit: María Jesús Contreras

“I have PT sessions on Zoom and was just high by accident once,” she recalls. It seemed like it would end up as a wasted session for Kate. But the opposite was true. “I literally felt like I could knock out an elephant." So Kate initiated a system of smoking before sessions, unknown to the PT on the other side of the Zoom call, apart from one time where he noticed smoke in the background of her living room, and Kate said she was “burning incense”.

The reason some people seem to like pairing weed with exercise like they’re wine and cheese can be explained by a simple Venn diagram. Imagine weed and exercise are the two circles, and the nice fuzzy feeling created by the two is the middle section. “There's something about the endocannabinoid system that is activated by exercise,” says Dr Greg Gerdeman, a neuroscientist and medical cannabis expert. (That’s the biological system that processes cannabis and helps to control homeostasis.) “Cannabis and exercise share similar neurological mechanisms. They’re intimately related.”

Cannabis and exercise are like a venn diagram ... they're intimately related

So if you believe Dr Gerdeman, the runner’s high is akin to being… actually high. His view is that the two complement each other instead of working against each other. This is obviously dependent on each person’s reaction to cannabis, as an anxious smoker is unlikely to feel the sheer bliss of a 10k run every time they smoke up.

Practically, it can also help you enjoy it more. “It overrides the internal signal of ‘oh my knees are hurting, I don’t have my breathing right,’ Dr Gerdeman says. “It helps you get to that state of comfort.”

Patrick and Kate both consumed the equivalent of 10-20 spliffs per week before engaging in high-exercise, but it’s not just regular weed-lovers who are combining cannabis and exercise. For 34-year-old Chris Barnicle, who was raised just outside Boston in the United States, first came the running, then came the smoking.

Chris found the perfect running partner in cannabis, and still uses it every day. Credit: Chris Barnicle

“I ran a mandatory mile when I was 13 and was by far the fastest in my class,” he recalls, “so the gym coach comes up to me and says ‘Hey, do you wanna run track?” This was the start of Chris’ running career, which would soon become inextricably linked to cannabis. But at this point, he hadn’t even tried it.

Then Chris went to high school and had his first edible. “There was a kid who used to sell them in school, and my best friend used to buy them on Fridays. I’d have a cross country race on Saturdays and we’d take them afterwards.” Chris felt well recovered after those races, and was ready to do another long run the next day.

He went on to make a living out of combining cannabis and running. He started his own CBD company and even made it to the Olympic trials in 2016 for marathon running, earning himself the nickname “The World’s Fastest Stoner”. While he’s given up on professional running now, he will always be a staunch advocate for high-exercise. “It sounds so cliche, but it really is a mind and body connection,” he says. “People think they’re gonna run in a strange way when on cannabis, but you’re more able to make adjustments [to your form]. It’s slowed down, more sensitive, it’s like yoga for me when I’m running and high.”

I thought running was painful and boring and runners were conservative meatheads

Chris always had marathon runner capabilities. He was naturally fast, and he got into the sport young. But what if you hated running, and had never even been on a jog? Could weed really give an average Joe the motivation to go from stoner to sprinter? It turns out, no. It might make you into an ultra-marathon runner.

Josiah had never worked out in his life before 2014. He was a cannabis reporter for VICE at the time and was living what he describes as a “sedentary” lifestyle. “I thought running was painful and boring, and I had these cultural stereotypes of runners as conservative meatheads,” he reveals. In short, Josiah thought running was lame. Then cannabis was legalised in Colorado and he decided to give running a go while high, because he’d been hoping to get into exercising more for the sake of his mental health.

Fast forward to April 2021, and Josiah is crossing the finish line of his first ultra-marathon - a 50K run with a 4,000 foot climb in the mountains. But how?

Josiah went from exercise sceptic to ultra marathon runner. Credit: Josiah Hesse

“Weed just made the experience different. It was not only a lot of fun, it was less painful, less arduous,” he explains. Josiah started planning his days around his runs, cutting down on drinking and smoking so he could run more often. So much for couch to 5k, that’s how you go from couch potato to 50k.

But let’s be real: the primary way of getting high is via smoking, and that can’t be good for you, right? Doctor and respiratory expert Professor Robin Taylor from the University of Edinburgh bursts the high-exercise bubble and says hands down, no. “The lungs are meant for fresh air. While cannabis isn’t as bad as tobacco for structural damage, it is worse for the production of mucus.” So basically, you’re slightly less likely to get cancer or wreck your lungs for life, but you will cough, spit and wheeze because of the mucus in your lungs - they aren’t unaffected.

Professor Taylor knows this because of a long-running study he was involved with that assessed cannabis-dependent people every three years, from age 21 to 38. Turns out you might not wreck your lungs like a smoker, but you will get a nice gift basket of “wheezing [...], exercise-induced shortness of breath, nocturnal awakening with chest tightness and early morning sputum production.” Sexy.

Credit: María Jesús Contreras

Professor Taylor could not comment on the alternative of edibles because they would not affect respiratory function. While they may not be harmful for the lungs, some studies say edibles can have “other harmful effects” such as the risk of overconsumption and “impaired judgment and coordination”.

And not everyone likes the addictive cycle of getting high to exercise. Scott Cruft, who is 24 and from Kent, said that using weed to work out just helped “reinforce the bad behaviour” of his heavy drug use. “I just couldn’t see an end to it back then,” he says, “I used to smoke so heavily and started to feel guilty about it. I wanted to stop because I smoked so much that reality got blurred… it was starting to give me anxiety attacks and was making me completely anti-social.

And so Scott exercised while high to try and “cancel out the negatives.” The more Scott got into the routine of his home workouts (strength training with bodyweight exercises) the less he felt he needed the weed. “I haven’t smoked in over a year now and I’m really grateful,” he admits. “It’s the routine I’d say that’s the worse part of you do it often and you get into a rhythm without it you feel lost.”

Scott Cruft ditched his high-exercise routine after it left him feeling anxious and dependent. Credit: Scott Cruft

Religious high-exercisers are, as you would expect, dismissive of claims that their favourite puff puff pass time has adverse effects. Despite having little more than their own anecdotal evidence to base their stance on.

“I don't think I ever would have gotten into exercise without cannabis,” Josiah says. It’s a sentiment echoed across nearly every person I spoke to. “I might have conditioned myself into it,” agrees Patrick. “It is a little bit like reverse carrot and stick, because now I associate weed with working out when I never used to.” And Kate thinks that whatever it takes to get you off the sofa is a positive, saying: “To be honest, if someone can run a marathon after smoking weed and not just spend that time sat on the sofa eating Percy Pigs, more power to them.” 

Each of these high-exercisers went from little exercise, if any, to varying levels of athleticism. The science may dispute it, but Patrick still gets his 600 reps in as often as six times a week, Josiah runs every day and competes in ultra marathons, and Kate, who used to snub working out entirely, recently completed her first virtual half-marathon - and yes, she did pull out a joint halfway through. These three found the combo worked for them, but know it’s specific to each person and their relationship with cannabis. While it’s obviously more medically ideal to work out without the crutch of weed, these stoners live by it.

All in all, your decision to exercise, high or not, is exactly that: dealer’s choice.  

If you’re worried about your recreational use of drugs, you can call Club Drug Clinic on 020 3317 3000 or get confidential advice about drugs from Talk To Frank on 0300 123 6600.

*Patrick’s name has been changed to protect his anonymity.

Featured image credit: María Jesús Contreras.