Personal Health

Some Ultra-Marathoners Now Swear by Marijuana to Help Their Training

More athletes are coming out publicly about their pot use.

Photo Credit: lzf / Shutterstock.com

As the cannabis legalization movement continues to grow, so does public education about the long-demonized pot plant. There is an increased understanding of marijuana as being less of a dangerous drug (though the U.S. government still stubbornly classifies it as such) and more of a potentially beneficial medicinal herb. Its benefits have been invaluable for cancer patients, children with epilepsy, veterans, rape survivors and others suffering from severe PTSD.

As public opinion shifts, more athletes are coming out publicly about their pot use. In a recent article, Leafly writer Gage Peake discussed the “CannAthlete movement” with 24-year-old runner Avery Collins, part of an emerging group of high-intensity extreme distance runners, or ultramarathoners, who openly incorporate cannabis into their training and recovery routines. Ultramarathoners run distances of 50 to 500 or more miles with inclines reaching thousands of feet. A Runner’s World article last February detailed the many reasons runners are “mixing marijuana and mileage,” and the subject has been a source of major debate in running circles. (In a 2015 article for Ultra Running Magazine, writer and ultrarunner Will Cooper sums up his personal ganja quandary.)

While many athletes find cannabis helps their bodies to recuperate during training, it is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, and most of the largest marathon events scan for cannabis in drug tests. Whether cannabis is an ethical, safe option for athletes to recover and reduce inflammation or a performance-enhancing drug remains a subject of debate.

Three ultramarathon athletes who speak openly about their pot use explain why they use the herb.

1. Avery Collins, who lives in Colorado (one of the first three states to legalize cannabis in 2012, along with Washington and Oregon) told Gage Peake of Leafly he used to use marijuana socially during college, then started to use it as a professional training tool after moving to Breckenridge, Colorado. His training regimen, as described to Peake, consists of five-week blocks of gnarly sounding workouts.

“I am doing about 150 miles a week,” he said of his most recent training period. “I’m averaging anywhere from 25-30 miles a day and 30k to 40k feet in elevation climbing in a week.”

Collins uses cannabis to help his body repair the wear and tear of those intense training periods, Peake notes.

“To run 100 straight miles, like the race I’m doing this Friday, I could be out running for 28 straight hours. Once you stop, you sit down and it is crazy, your body has been so used to running for over a day it thinks it is still going, so your muscles just throb and throb and all of a sudden it all stops and everything swells up,” Collins said. “With its various medicinal compounds, you can really cut down not only on the fatigue but you can calm the muscles and shoot down a lot of that inflammation.”

Collins also spoke with the Guardian in a May article by Josiah Hesse about his weed use. He told Hesse the first time he combined pot and running was “amazing.”

“It helps me stay in the moment and embrace what’s going on right then and there,” he said. The Guardian noted that “Collins is quick to state that while he enjoys running high, he never uses it during races and doesn’t think his success should be credited to pot.”

2. Jenn Shelton is one of the world’s top female ultrarunners. (Her story is featured in Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.) She is out of the proverbial pot closet and talks about its benefits when it comes to distance running.

The High Times quoted her as saying, “The person who is going to win an ultra [marathon] is someone who can manage their pain, not puke and stay calm. Pot does all three of those things.”

She also told the Wall Street Journal, about her use of the herb in training, for reasons similar to Collins’.

3. Jeff Sperber is another pro-pot ultramarathoner. The 43-year-old used a vaporizer to inhale some cannabis post-race, according to a Runner’s World piece by Nevin Martell last February in which Sperber explains that for him, pot is on par with Advil, but safer.

“When you’ve been running for that long, you’ve got swelling muscles and aching joints, and you’re tired. ...You can take an Advil, which will help the swelling and inflammation, but it’s also very taxing on your liver.”

The article explains how Sperber has turned to weed rather than pharmaceuticals to deal with pain after multiple surgeries (at the time he had undergone two hip surgeries and a hernia surgery) and for stage-four arthritis in a toe. He is a legal medical marijuana user in California.

“I can’t do that stuff and function as a normal human being,” Sperber said, referring to the side-effects of the pharmaceutical pain medications he’s been prescribed. “As a weed smoker, I can function.”

Cannabis’ anti-inflammatory properties are scientifically proven, and numerous studies (as well as anecdotal evidence) suggest cannabis is more efficient and less harmful than many pharmaceutical drugs when it comes to reducing pain and inflammation. An article from Cannabis Now explains why many find pot works better than opiates for pain management.

April M. Short is a yoga teacher and writer who previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor. She currently edits part-time for AlterNet, and freelances for a number of publications nationwide.

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