Two years ago, I left Seattle on a bicycle and rode 1,400 miles down the Pacific Coast. It was an amazing, life-changing experience that was also frequently boring. As the scenery changed from state to state, my process remained utterly the same—push the pedal down, push the other pedal down, repeat. I quickly realized that weed was a wonderful medicine when you’re working out for more than 10 hours a day, every single day. Luckily, I had stocked up on cannabis from a medical dispensary.
People have probably realized the benefits of using cannabis while being active for thousands of years. But legalization has allowed certain athletes and trainers to publicly support the combination.
Joel Benjamin, who runs cannabis-friendly yoga classes at his Yogasmith studio in Seattle, says cannabis can help you practice in ways you hadn’t thought of before. “It can definitely be a nice way to mix your practice up. It opens up your body just like it opens up your mind, it can be very freeing,” Benjamin says. “People who have the same practice that they do every time they roll out their mat can suddenly find themselves moving in new ways.”
The majority of personal trainers I contacted declined to be interviewed for this story, but Ivy Karlinsky, a personal trainer at Seattle’s Transform 180 Training, is skeptical of the benefits of using cannabis while lifting weights. “I can’t say that I would feel comfortable in a gym setting training someone who was under the influence of anything,” Karlinsky says, adding that she didn’t know of any trainers who were receptive to the idea.
But if you live in San Francisco, you can join the world’s first cannabis-friendly gym. Jim McAlpine opened Power Plant Fitness earlier this year and his gym has a specific area for smoking, vaping, and eating weed. McAlpine has also created a line of edibles and started the 420 Games, a friendly competition event that travels around the country.
McAlpine says cannabis helps him focus his mind and motivate himself through his workouts. “The most important muscle or piece of an athlete’s body is their mind,” he says. “That last rep or that last mile, it’s not the muscles that get you through, it’s your mind.”
McAlpine says being high actually increases the amount of control he has while working out. “You need to focus mentally when you’re working out, and you have a greater degree of focus,” he says.
So who’s right, McAlpine or Karlinsky? My monthlong bicycle trip convinced me that being high helps me work out. But what do the scientists say?
Unfortunately, like so many questions around pot, the science is still out. A 2015 review in the journal Sports Medicine called out the arguments on both sides as purely anecdotal, and it called for more research on the subject. That may take a while—the DEA’s current scheduling of cannabis makes it ridiculously difficult for researchers to study anything relating to cannabis.
Scientists have found some interesting connections between cannabis and exercise. There is strong evidence that cannabis can have anti-inflammatory effects, which probably accounts for why many athletes (like Arnold Schwarzenegger after winning a body-building title in 1975) enjoy cannabis as a soothing post-workout supplement.
There’s also evidence that the active chemicals in cannabis are the same ones that give people the euphoric “runner’s high” feeling. Endorphins are commonly given credit for the feeling, but recent research shows that endorphins are unable to physically affect the brain. Instead, our brain creates its own THC-like chemicals that react with the same endocannabinoid system that weed operates on.
Stoners may also be healthier than sober folks. A 2013 study conducted by the Harvard Medical School found that cannabis use was associated with smaller waist size and lower insulin levels, and a 2015 study by the University of Michigan found cannabis users have a 30 percent lower risk of diabetes. But both studies acknowledged the need for more research.
When I was conducting my own reefer research on the coast, I would smoke almost every day, usually in the afternoon when I needed a little more inspiration to make it to my goal for the day.
Highway 101 is constantly undulating—it runs along the beach, up and over headlands, and then back along the beach. Smoking weed helped me relax into those climbs instead of just charging over them. I would concentrate on finding a rhythm and not breaking it, even if I was moving at barely five miles an hour. I would start chanting, rhythmically punctuating each downward pedal with a meaningless word, until I slowly rolled over the hill’s crest.
I would have felt ridiculous muttering to myself all alone on the coast, but my mind was completely consumed by what I was doing. Cannabis hadn’t kept me on the couch—it had helped me complete the greatest physical journey of my life.