As cannabis largely has been (and still is in some jurisdictions) illegal until very recently, it goes without saying that stigma around the substance is still pervasive in society as a whole. More specifically however, the sporting world is an area where cannabis use has been largely criticised and penalised as it is considered to be a performance-enhancing and potentially mentally detrimental drug. But are these beliefs well founded or simply the result of cannabis’ ongoing stigma in the wider world?
In recent years, many athletes, particularly those in high-risk sports, have discussed their use of cannabis publicly as use of the drug becomes more widely accepted in our society. Indeed, as summarised by Mark A. Ware in a review of cannabis use by athletes: ‘medical and nonmedical cannabis use among athletes reflects changing societal and cultural norms and experiences’, with cannabis use being more accepted now than ever before.
So how is cannabis supposedly meant to help performance?
The main reason interest in the analgesic effects of cannabinoids has piqued recently is due to increased understanding of the operations of the endocannabinoid system.
The reason the endocannabinoid system is important in terms of sports performance is because this system has been shown to be somewhat involved in various physiological processes including inflammation and pain perception, with research suggesting that the modulation of the endocannabinoid system has exciting analgesic potential which could help athletes rest more effectively and recover faster. As suggested by Dr. June Chin in Men’s Health, cannabis can be particularly useful “during the training season to help recover, ease pain, and push to the next level”.
However, concerns over cannabis use in sports also stem from the workings of this same system, as the activation of CB1 receptors is believed to have detrimental effects upon memory, movement and other factors in some cases.
As suggested by Jordan Tishler, a physician and cannabis therapeutics expert: “Cannabis has been shown to be a performance-degrading drug, so for peak performance you should not use cannabis“. Concern also arises in this area due to the fact that such negative effects of cannabis are hard to isolate and control independently without impacting the interlinked positive effects of the drug.
Further concerns around cannabis use come from a lack of high-quality research around cannabis and its use in sport due to cannabis’ illegal and prohibited status in much of the world until recently. Also, the lack of athletes admitting their cannabis use for fear of repercussions means we also have limited anecdotal evidence of cannabis’ efficacy in sporting environments.
What the evidence says
One of the main areas of research around cannabis use in sport revolves around whether cannabis is an ergolytic or ergogenic drug. If a substance is ergolytic it is considered detrimental to athletic performance, whilst an ergogenic substance is thought to enhance it. Those who believe cannabis is ergogenic think the substance may help sports stars focus and manage their pain whilst those who believe it is ergolytic think cannabis reduces the athlete’s drive to train and lengthens their reaction times.
A study carried out by Steadman and Singh (1975) showed that, in comparison to a placebo condition, use of cannabis led to an increased heart rate, higher systolic and diastolic blood pressure and a reduced physical work capacity. This evidence supports the idea that cannabis use has a negative impact on sports performance and ability.
Another study by Renaud and Cormier suggested that the use of cannabis reduced the maximal work capacity of participants while increasing their metabolic rate and heart rate.
A study by Eichner (1993) concluded that rather than being ergogenic in line with anecdotal beliefs of athletes, cannabis is actually ergolytic (meaning it hampers rather than helps athletic performance).
In a review of cannabis and the performance of elite athletes published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine in 2018, researchers concluded that ‘there is no direct evidence of performance-enhancing effects in athletes’. However, the researchers also suggested that further attention should be paid to the potential benefits of using cannabis for pain-management in sport and for the treatment of concussion-related symptoms.
Interestingly, there have also been calls from athletes, particularly American football players, for the re-examination of cannabis’ potential role in reducing symptoms linked to traumatic brain injuries.
Indeed, many suggest that although cannabis may be shown by current research to be ergolytic, the use of cannabis for relaxation and anxiety reduction may in fact be the key to it’s supposed performance enhancing effects. If the athlete is more relaxed whilst at rest and less nervous about their sporting performance, it seems logical that this may improve their existing abilities.
For now, much more high-quality research around cannabis use in sports is required if clear, uncontradicted evidence is to be discovered about the drug and its effects. With countries around the world increasingly leaning towards legalisation of both recreational and medical cannabis, hopes are high that such research can now be carried out much more frequently.
What do you think about cannabis use in sports? Should it be allowed? Or is it an unfair advantage? Let us know in the comments below.
For more information on this topic, take a look at our evidence base, a ground-breaking systematic review of the history of research in this area and a global first-of-its-kind searchable database for clinical referencing.
The rest of our comprehensive resources on medical cannabis are available on our website. We urge anyone considering the use of medical cannabis products to consult with a trained medical professional prior to beginning use.