If you’ve ever enjoyed exercise, you know what it’s like to be high on marijuana.
“One of the reasons people exercise—whether they realize it or not—is to enhance the production of anandamide,” says Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli organic chemist often referred to as the Godfather of cannabis science. “You exercise, you feel better, and this is because of anandamide.”
Ever since the running boom of the ’70s and ’80s, skeptics have been rolling their eyes at the term “runner’s high,” doubtful that an activity so torturous as exercise could ever feel good. But multiple studies show that after 30 minutes of cardio (at around 70 percent max heart rate) most people experience a reduction in pain and an uptick in joy. They report feeling more connected to their bodies, to nature, and subsequently have positive association with exercise—making them more likely to do it again.
As Mechoulam points out, this is due to anandamide, a cannabinoid named after the Sanskrit word for bliss.
As a cannabinoid, it’s a compound in the same family as THC, the cannabinoid that gives marijuana its psychoactive effect. Research shows that evolutionary forces gave humans anandamide so we could run down antelopes over long distances, without being crippled by pain and self-doubt.
“There are multiple reward systems that act, from an evolutionary standpoint, to induce behavior,” says David Raichlen, professor of biological sciences at University of Southern California, who researches the intersection of anandamide, exercise, and evolution. “The two major reward systems are endocannabinoids and endorphins. Both of them are powerful pain-relievers, and so when it comes to exercise there’s a reward of pain relief, allowing you to move longer distances, consume more calories, survive longer, and pass on your genes. When these pathways enter the brain, there’s a mental health reward, a good feeling.”
Raichlen theorizes that some people may have a difficult time achieving this because they either don’t make it to 30 minutes of cardio, or they go too hard and surpass the 70 percent heart rate threshold. For these people, a moderate dose of THC (along with the number of other helpful cannabinoids in marijuana, like CBD) can help induce production of anandamide quicker, transporting athletes into a realm of present playfulness, of being “dialed in,” a phrase I heard again and again from the scores of athletes I spoke with for my book, Runners High: How a Movement of Cannabis Fueled Athletes Are Changing the Science of Sports.
According to my reporting, the vast majority of professional athletes in every sport—from the MMA to the PGA, from the MLB to the NFL—are using cannabis before, during, or after their training and competition. And amateur athletes as well are sheepishly confessing that they’ve been getting high before their runs, basketball games, rock climbing, or weightlifting for years, certain that they were the only ones. A recent study out of CU Boulder surveyed the exercise habits of people living in states with legal weed and found that 80 percent of respondents were incorporating weed into their workout regimen.
Cannabis is particularly popular in the world of ultramarathon running, where racers will traverse 150-250 miles (along with a thousands of feet of ascent) over the course of a few days. It’s common to hear them describe this experience as “10 percent physical, 90 percent mental.” In addition to the anti-inflammatory pain-relieving factors, cannabis can also change a person’s psychological relationship to pain, allowing them to move through it gracefully. They also report feeling more connected to the present moment, remembering why they got into running before sponsorships and data took all the fun out of it.
Throughout my research for the book, I heard my own story in those of so many others. Again and again, it was the same narrative: I hated exercising my whole life, then I tried it with cannabis, and it became wonderful, the best part of my day. Like most Americans, I saw exercise as a painful chore and remained a sedentary, pack-a-day smoker with a bad diet and a drinking habit until the age of 30.
But when I began using 10mg of edible THC before my runs, I found myself doing it so often I began enrolling in 10Ks, marathons and, eventually, ultramarathons. I was never competitive, rarely had training or health goals, and never talked about it to friends or social media (until promoting this book forced my hand). It was my own hedonistic enterprise, a secret vice like pornography or Marvel movies.
According to Raichlen, our evolutionary reward system is what makes activities like sex, sleep, and eating food (particularly salt, fat, and sugar) so gratifying. Exercise has the potential to be among that list, but a variety of factors—bad diet, stress, body dysmorphia, sedentary lifestyles—have divorced us from this ancient system of pleasure.
It’s not a panacea for all people in all circumstances, but a moderate dose of cannabis (in my case, edibles, but plenty of athletes enjoy smoke or vape) can be just the ticket into a fantasy world of cardio comfort, lost in the hypnotic rhythm of each foot slapping a mountain trail, or the meditative bliss of skiing through fresh powder, or simply a brisk walk through the park on an autumn evening—perhaps with a little Pink Floyd on the headphones.