Hailey Middlebrook: Is pot the new PowerBar?

Tuesday, April 5, 2016 - 5:36pm

Last Friday night, I set my alarm with one mission in mind: to finish Saturday’s run before Ann Arbor’s 45th annual Hash Bash began. It was still dark when I set out the next morning, but I happily took sleep deprivation, cold fingers and scattered snow showers over streets saturated with marijuana.

Before I offend any Hash Bash attendees, here’s a disclaimer: I very strongly (and maybe unfairly) despise weed.

Part of my hatred stems from the act of smoking itself. Like all runners, I prize my lungs. The idea of inhaling something that could harm my breathing makes me anxious. (Full disclosure: I was the kid who coughed obnoxiously whenever I passed someone on their cigarette break, convinced that secondary smoke would give me lung cancer.)

When I first encountered marijuana in high school, being a “stoner” was a persona. Smoking weed was relaxing, my classmates said. To “judgemental me,” they were lazy. And out of shape. I dismissed marijuana enthusiasts as gluttonous and sluggish — kids who were always on the sofa, hacking up a lung, Doritos in hand.

And yet, some defied the stoner stereotype. And they continue to defy it: they’re stellar cross country runners, swimmers, skiers, cyclists, rock climbers. Somehow, (despite several health risks from marijuana found in published studies) they rank among the best in their competitive fields.

Who are these athletes? People like Clifford Drusinsky, an venerable triathlete who eats an energy bar laced with 20 milligrams of THC (the chemical found in marijuana) before a three-hour bike ride. Or Avery Collins, a 23-year-old ultrarunner from Colorado who recently ran a 100-mile race in Hawaii. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Collins explained his training regimen: he typically runs about 150 miles weekly and consumes weed four or five times each week as well.

Rather than smoking the plant, Collins uses a vaporizer, eats weed edibles and rubs a marijuana-infused balm on his legs, which helps numb physical aches from his ultra-distance runs. Similarly, by ingesting a little weed before he runs, Collins controls for nausea (which is crucial for a long run) and helps with the mental challenges of the sport. The marijuana occupies his mind, which reduces anxiety and dulls the tedium of miles.

It also helps him sleep. As Collins explained in the article, “You’re running for 17 to 20 hours straight, and when you stop, sometimes your legs and your brain don’t just stop ... Sometimes [marijuana] is the only way I can fall asleep after racing.”

Collins isn’t alone in his post-running ritual. In an interview with Runner’s World, Jeff Serber, a 42-year-old runner from Los Angeles, called the plant his painkiller of choice — especially after two hip surgeries, a hernia surgery, and severe arthritis in his toe. He told Runner’s World, “You can take an Advil, which will help the swelling and inflammation, but it’s also very taxing on your liver ... I can’t do [prescription pain medicine] and function as a normal human being.”

Serber continued, “As a weed smoker, I can function.”  

The issue of “functioning” is what typically divides athletes, scientists and physicians (not to mention the rest of society) on the marijuana debate. Even as weed becomes increasingly legalized in states — prompting magazines like Outside to investigate, “Can Pot Make You a Better Athlete?” — many people are understandably hesitant to add marijuana to their workout routines, regardless of its supposed benefits.

Can weed be healthy? Few scientists have studied the effects of marijuana on fitness, but many athletes have recently “come out of the cannabis closet” to describe their experiences. What we do know is that THC binds to the cannabinoid receptors in our brains, which are the same receptors activated when we experience a “runner’s high.”

Whether our cannabinoids are hijacked naturally through exercise or synthetically, through marijuana, the “high” we feel is marked by “sedation, analgesia, mild happiness, the loss of the sensation of time and a loss of worries,” according to Runner’s World.     

For some weed smokers, being free of worry can be equal to being lazy. But for others, marijuana has an opposite effect: it makes athletes feel invincible. A skier who consumes weed, for example, may be willing to tackle terrain that intimidated him before. As an anonymous climbing guide said in Men’s Journal, “People have a stereotype of a zoned-out stoner, but for a lot of people, [weed] it makes them super-focused and motivated ... it’s like drinking two espressos.”

Obviously, there are risks involved with weed. For every one skier who focuses better after taking a hit, there are dozens whose cognitive and fine motor skills are negatively affected by the drug, putting them in dangerous situations (i.e. straight into a tree). Marijuana is also known to increase heart rate and blood flow to the brain, potentially causing cardiac arrest and stroke.

Besides its deadlier side effects, marijuana’s anxiety-reducing capabilities and bronchodilating effects (which increases airflow to the lungs) prompted the World Anti-Doping Agency to ban the drug from athletic competitions — but the rule is shifting. In 2013, the WADA raised the level of THC permissible for athletes, enabling elites to train with marijuana outside of competitions.

Will marijuana be the training supplement of the future? Unlikely. Or at least, not publicly. Because despite our country’s growing acceptance of weed, and despite the elite athletes who debunk the stoner stereotype, the negative stigma of marijuana is hard to shake — especially in the world of athletics.

Here’s the thing: marijuana isn’t banned from competition because it’s a performance enhancer. Weed doesn’t bother me, or anyone else for that matter, the same way steroids do — because smoking doesn’t necessarily give the athlete an advantage over his competitors.

But it taints the purity of the sport. When Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps was caught on camera smoking weed from a bong in 2009, it caused a worldwide uproar. Reporters fished for reasons, sponsors wanted apologies, parents labeled him a bad role model. One picture was all it took to take Phelps off the podium and into the streets of Hash Bash.

In the future, there may be concrete evidence of marijuana’s health benefits, particularly for athletes. But until then, I think I’ll stick with the runner’s high.