My legs feel rubbery yet stable, like I’m bounding across a miles-long trampoline. I can see in the mirrors surrounding me that my form is good—hips forward, shoulders down, heels kicking—as my body effortlessly glides through the air with each gleeful step. According to the perception of my nervous system, I weigh little more than a puppy.
I am under the influence of cannabis, and scientists are observing me run on a treadmill.
Short bungee cords link my waist to the rails, as there was concern that a stoned runner could be prone to falling. My heart rate is being monitored, and every ten minutes a young woman with a clipboard asks me to rate my pain, pleasure, dissociation, and energy levels.
It’s the summer of 2020, and I’m at the CU Boulder CHANGE lab, participating in a first-of-its-kind study to bring hard science to the overwhelming anecdotal reports that when it comes to adding a little weed to your workout, in the words of Matthew McConaughey, “It’d be a lot cooler if you did.”
Or as Angela Bryan, social psychologist and senior author of the study, recently published in Sports Medicine, explained to me: “From a public health perspective, we need to find a way to get people to enjoy being active, because then they’re more likely to do it, to maintain it, and to do it more vigorously.”
This was a groundbreaking study on many levels, requiring a terrific amount of legal maneuvering involving secret papers given to a dispensary, my blood drawn inside of a van, getting high in a random apartment, and being rushed to a university lab before I lost my buzz. A lot about it was strange, confusing, and a bit surreal—but, for me, running high was not one of them.
By 2020, I’d been running high almost daily for years. Throughout my teens and twenties, I was a pudgy, sedentary oaf, living on cigarettes and Hamburger Helper. But when I moved into a cabin deep in the Rocky Mountains and began hiking trails with my dog under the influence of cannabis edibles (which had become more reliable in dosage and effect following Colorado’s legalization in 2014), I found exercise could be a hedonistic pleasure, and not just the vocation of competitive meatheads who kicked my ass in high school.
Over a period of months, my dog and I steadily increased our pace until the two of us were regularly sprinting among the Aspen trees, splashing through streams, greedily inhaling the fresh mountain air as we kicked up dust in our wake.
It was so much fun that I quit smoking cigarettes and changed my diet just so I could do more of it. When I began entering races—going from 10ks and half-marathons to full marathons and, eventually, a 50k mountain trail race—I discovered cannabis to be very popular among the quasi-hippie ultra-running scene. Many told me anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of them are hitting vapes or joints or eating edibles at some point during ultra-marathons, which can last anywhere from 50 to 300 miles, often across brutal deserts or mountain peaks, in crippling heat or bone-rattling cold.
As a journalist, I leaped at the chance to write a series of stories about this phenomenon and, eventually, a book. I quickly discovered that it wasn’t only the trail runners that were getting high. At every level of pro sports—from hockey to golf, from MMA to the NBA—I was repeatedly told by retired athletes that the majority of them were using cannabis before, during, or after their training and/or competition (despite risks to their career, as the substance is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency).
I also met plenty of recreational athletes who, just like me, despised exercise before they began seasoning it with a little weed, and it became a regular part of their daily routine (often the best part).
Nearly everyone I spoke with used phrases like “dialed in” or “flow state” when describing the phenomenon, allowing them to momentarily forget the numbers, the competition, and the goals, and just engage with the pain and pleasure of the activity (the two often intertwining into a transcendent bliss), reminding them why they got into it in the first place.
What was it about cannabis, I wondered, that made exercise so much fun?
Serendipitously, Angela Bryan and her neuroscientist husband, Kent Hutchison, were as seduced by this question as I was. But it took some time for her to come around to the idea.
Years earlier, when Colorado’s cannabis legalization was first announced, Bryan was concerned that more people getting high would lead to even less exercise. “But then I looked at the epidemiological data,” she explains. “These were large, national data sets, and I saw that cannabis users had better metabolic biomarkers, they were exercising more, they had lower body mass index, better waist-to-hip ratio, lower rates of diabetes, and better insulin function.”
Bryan, Hutchison, and social psychologist Laurel Gibson led a series of studies around the intersection of weed and working out. What they found surprised them: In one survey of 600 cannabis users throughout legalized states, 80 percent of them said they regularly exercised under the influence of the plant.
So when Bryan told me in 2020 that she was about to launch the first university study observing cannabis users exercising in a lab setting, focused not on performance enhancement but on the subjective experience of enjoyment and motivation of those running on a treadmill, I eagerly agreed.
Waiting for the study to begin, I fell down a rabbit hole of research on the endocannabinoid system, which regulates dozens of bodily systems via cannabinoids similar to THC or CBD. I spoke with a variety of biologists, psychologists, botanists, and neurologists about the cannabis plant and how it interacts with our own natural drug dealer that lives in our anatomy, especially when running.
Research on the natural “runners high” phenomenon—characterized by a reduction in pain and increase of joy, arriving after around 30 minutes of cardio exercise done at around 70 percent heart rate—was caused not by endorphins as most assumed, but by anandamide, a cannabinoid whose name derives from the Sanskrit word for “bliss.”
Anandamide has a similar effect on the brain and body as THC—and can also be induced by the consumption of THC via cannabis. That’s why aerobic exercise and cannabis are such a natural fit for each other. Evolutionary anthropologists believe that the reward of a runner’s high came about as an incentive among early humans to keep us going when forced to patiently run down prey over long distances.
And, like we’ve done with food and sex, it seems that humans are now tapping into that evolutionary reward system not for survival but pleasure—often via cannabis.
Research observing the effect of cannabis use on exercise has been sparse at best, though, and what little exists tends to focus on its impact on sports performance, not the subjective experience of pleasure and motivation. Any US research involving cannabis is restricted to the low-quality, low-potency weed grown by the DEA, which scientists hate using as it’s reflective of the widely used products bought at dispensaries.
Since cannabis is still federally illegal, universities risk a great deal of funding and prosecution if they circumnavigate the DEA and conduct research with dispensary products—even in Boulder, Colorado, one of the largest recreational weed markets in the nation.
So Angela Bryan and her team devised an elaborate system wherein I (and 41 other volunteers) were instructed to show up at a specific dispensary with a piece of paper containing some esoteric information that meant nothing to me yet was a coded message to the budtender informing them to sell us either a CBD-dominant or THC-dominant joint.
And while I was technically paying with my own money, I was later given a check for ten dollars, yet was repeatedly told, “This is not a reimbursement” for the cannabis, in a very legally clarifying tone, because the university cannot use their own money to purchase a federally illegal product. I was just being paid for my participation in the study, got it?
Consumption of cannabis is only legal in Colorado within a private residence. I couldn’t get high at my house in Denver, as my high would fade in the hour’s drive to the university, and a whole battery of laws prevented Bryan’s team from allowing me to smoke a joint on university property. So, after leaving the dispensary, I traveled to a friend’s apartment in Boulder, where I took three hits.
Outside the apartment, I was met by a university student driving a mobile laboratory (named “The CannaVan” by Bryan’s team). In the back of this windowless van, I let this stranger stick a needle in my arm, collecting a sample of my intoxicated blood, before then hopping in the driver’s seat and rushing me to the university lab.
I had been in this same lab two months earlier, jogging on a treadmill with no cannabis in my system, getting some baseline data to compare my stoned running against.
I’ve never been a fan of gyms or treadmills, viewing them only as a necessary evil if I can’t access a trail. Running is typically a solitary experience for me—as is the case with most trail runners—so doing it in a clinical setting, observed and probed with questions, was at best boring and at worst a bit awkward.
But the second time around, after ingesting a few hits off a joint, I was having fun observing my running form in all these mirrors, becoming a little playful in my stride, humming songs to myself, looking around the room, suddenly curious about this lab and all the esoteric fitness gear surrounding me. Or just becoming lost in the zip-zip-zip rhythm of my shoes squeaking on the treadmill floor.
A few weeks after I ran in the lab, American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was stripped of her Olympic trial win after testing positive for cannabis. Later, WNBA star Britney Griner spends more than a year in a Russian prison when a vape pen is found in her luggage.
These two events, along with a few others, led to mounting pressure for the World Anti-Doping Agency to re-evaluate its stance on cannabis—potentially upending policies in sports the world over. In the summer of 2023, WADA announced they’d conducted a thorough review and would be making no changes to their ban on cannabis, arguing that it violates the “spirit of the sport.”
When I inquired to WADA for clarification of what that means, I was given a lot of vague, sentimental claptrap about “the pursuit of human excellence,” that the “spirit of sport” is “how we play true,” embodied by our “ethics, fair play, and honesty,” our “character and education,” “respect for rules and law,” “courage, community, and solidarity.”
Bryan views this ruling as an extension of the systemic racism that is, historically and currently, at the heart of most recreational drug laws in America. I, too, see the push for cannabis use in sports as an urgent social issue that warrants a great deal of attention, and WADA’s gee-wiz code of ethics felt like a lot of Nancy Reagan bullshit, adding zero clarity to the issue.
Whether cannabis makes me a technically “better” runner from a competition standpoint or not, I really don’t care. Half the fun of stoned running, for me at least, is in not concerning myself with such things.
In fact, cannabis may have a somewhat detrimental impact on performance. The CU Boulder study revealed that runners’ perception of their exertion is actually higher—as well as their heart rate—when running on the treadmill stoned when compared with their sober run.
“It’s interesting that at the same time the exercise feels harder, you’re also enjoying it more,” says Bryan.
It is true that THC raises your heart rate, which is important to keep under control especially with endurance sports, for both physical and psychological reasons. This can be easily monitored on a watch, which can help maintain a 70 percent max heart rate for maximal anandamide release.
It’s worth noting that the CU study was done smoking flower, which typically spikes in effect much more quickly than edibles. I personally prefer edibles (typically only 10mg of THC) over smoke before a run, as they deliver a smoother, stable body high than flower. Bryan agrees that researching edibles in this context—as well as a double-blind test including runners who’ve never used cannabis before—is definitely needed.
But for now, I’m perfectly content with the scientific data showing that cannabis will likely enhance my enjoyment of this physical activity, and I’m equally comfortable with the risk of it potentially embarrassing me on my Strava profile. I may not be the runner with the best time on the mountain, but I’m likely the one having the best time.