Jim McAlpine — the founder of the 420 Games (now the Civilized Games) and a cannabis entrepreneur — believes people have been getting buff while baked for decades. “It’s nothing new, but has been closeted,” McAlpine says. “Look at the ‘70s movie Pumping Iron with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno. They were smoking weed while working out, and they were major body builders.”
But even after the movie came out, McAlpine says, it was still a pastime most people didn’t discuss at the water cooler for fear of judgement. The way weed was displayed in the media justified their hushed tones. There was the Michael Phelps scandal in 2009, when the famed swimmer became the target of public scrutiny after photo of him inhaling smoke from a marijuana bong leaked.
Then, about six years ago, McAlpine started the event the 420 Games, which brought together “cannathletes” who wanted to smoke weed and workout to de-stigmatize the idea of toking up before taking to the treadmill. The occasion drew notable speakers such as skateboarder Tony Hawk and NFL running back Ricky Williams. McAlpine says the the games brought together like-minded people with common interests — including combining grass and getting fit. More people began talking about it openly.
All this is to say, if you work out on weed, you’re by no means alone. Research published this spring in Frontiers in Public Health surveyed cannabis users in U.S. states where marijuana use is legal: California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. They found that about 80% of participants endorsed combining exercise and cannabis use. They also found people who do this tend to exercise more often than the average American. This was big news in the pot world — especially since the typical "stoner" stereotype makes us think of a person with the munchies tearing into a bag of Fritos on the couch.
So, people are doing this openly. But should they? The answer is complicated.
Although research looking into the relationship between marijuana and exercise is sparse, some studies have promising results. The Frontiers research found that mixing weed and workouts may enhance enjoyment of and recovery from exercise. Participants in the survey also reported that it increased their motivation.
Another 2015 review article out of the University of Colorado Boulder linked cannabis use to feeling more motivation and enjoyment when it came to exercising. They noted cannabis activates brain pathways that may be involved with our pain responses and feelings of reward.
Many people report anecdotal evidence of having better focus when they work out high, too.
“There are two specific ways [marijana] can enhance working out,” McAlpine adds. “Everyone knows about recovery. It makes logical sense to people that it would alleviate pain… But another benefit that isn’t talked about a lot is that you can use it and go into a gym and be more focused. It allows your mind to be really engaged.”
But as far as perks go, McAlpine notes that this is all specific to weed, and not necessarily CBD — trendy as it may be. “To me, as an athlete, whole plant medicine is the most effective for focus and recovery, far superior to using the stripped down version,” he says. No conclusive research has been done to show whether CBD — or cannabidiol, the non-psychoactive compound that's derived from either cannabis or hemp plants — can improve fitness performance or recovery. However, one 2018 review published in Frontiers in Neurology found that it could reduce inflammation and help with pain for multiple sclerosis patients.
For the record, McAlpine says that working out high isn’t for everyone. You have to listen to your body. “Everybody’s different,” he says. “Some people are less coordinated and feel less focused, and that doesn’t bode well for working out.”
On top of that, if you have heart disease or other cardiovascular conditions, you may want to avoid this combination, explains Dr. Amnon (Ami) Beniaminovitz, MD, FACC, a cardiologist at Manhattan Cardiology. "It's hard to say if you should [workout high], because we don't have a lot of data about it," he explains. "But the less you work out on medications or drugs — or even energy drinks — the less chance you have of going into an abnormal heart rhythm... I wouldn't recommend it, especially if you know you have a heart condition or haven't been tested for underlying conditions."
Weed can increase your heart rate and blood pressure while you consume it and for about an hour afterward. Of course this is dependent on how much cannabis you use — and your heart rate might stop being affected in this way if you're a regular cannabis user. As Dr. Beniaminovitz explains, if you increase your heart rate from exercise on top of that, it could be bad news. The way marijuana impacts your sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system could also put your heart in trouble during exercise, he says.
However, Dr. Stephen Sidney — MD, MPH, the Director of Research Clinics and a senior research scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research — has a slightly different take. He agrees that there isn't enough research to truly know what working out high could do to the body. But he wouldn't necessarily advise against it if a patient came to him for advice on the topic. "Are they putting selves at risk? I don’t think we have definitive information," he says. "In general, a person's experience with marijuana use is a personal one, and some react differently... It may or may not cause heart problems. Patients should understand how they react and understand it can cause difficulties in coordination."
Sidney says his overall take is that, with the increasing legalization of marijuana in a number of states, more people are going to be using it recreationally, sometimes at the gym. "My guess is, like a lot of other things, moderate use is probably not going to be problematic for health and may even have some benefits."
Sidney adds that because of the difficulties in coordination it could cause, people shouldn't use it on a rutted trail run where accidents could occur. He also doesn't recommend it for teens or during pregnancy.
Another caveat about mixing pot and pushups: McAlpine says that you might not want to smoke before attempting an extreme sport.
“If it’s a life or death situation, you might use it for training, but on game day, you know, Evil Kinevel shouldn’t smoke a joint before jumping his motorcycle over Snake River Canyon,” McAlpine jokes.
But even if you won’t be canyon-jumping any time soon, take your personal preferences and health situation into account before working this new “runner’s high” into your exercise routine.
Refinery29 in no way encourages illegal activity and would like to remind its readers that marijuana usage continues to be an offense under Federal Law, regardless of state marijuana laws.