Cannabis and Athletic Performance: Part I - Overview and History

Welcome to the Endocannabinoid system — a biological cell-signalling system within each and every one of us that helps to provide homeostatic balance with respect to a wide range of bodily functions and processes. 

This system, ECS in short, is active within our bodies even if we don’t use cannabis, helping to keep internal bodily functions running smoothly by binding endocannabinoid receptors in a way that signals the body to perform certain critical and regulatory functions.¹

In the 1990's, researchers had discovered that the ECS works by producing various cannabinoid molecules within our bodies and, while we still don’t properly understand the intricacy surrounding the ECS itself, research has effectively linked it to numerous processes of our central nervous system.² It soon became apparent that our internal environment could be influenced, effecting its regulation of things like learning and memory, motor control, cardiovascular performance, muscle formation, bone growth, liver function, metabolism, etc.³

Not surprisingly, it had taken a great deal of back and forth to get to this realization — to even discover this system in the first place — and to begin to look at the influence of cannabis itself in a wholly unbiased way. 

And so we arrive at the particular question of this article, which will be asked ad infinitum throughout subsequent research and within subsequent articles: What influence does cannabis actually have, not only on our endocannabinoid system, but our overall psycho-physio system in general? 

Social Bias

We know a lot about how pot can influence our minds and the variable body buzzes that we can experience — but what effect does THC have in an athletic setting? 

Interestingly, researchers have been poking and prodding at this question for over half a century, with great difficulty. More interestingly, prior research throughout the mid to the end of the 21st century itself remains questionable itself, as it may have been influenced by negative social sentiments at the time. 

While experts have concluded that CBD and THC interact with the ECS, they’re not exactly sure how — but they’ve come to observe and validate a few things. 

Specifically, CBD doesn’t bind to receptors in the same way that THC does, as THC has a considerably stronger influence over our system as a whole.⁴

When smoking THC, various regions of the brain experience a cascade of different neuro-reactive results. Take, for instance, the amygdala (which regulates fear and emotion), the basal ganglia (relates to reflexes) and the cerebellum (which regulates motor coordination).⁵

Under the classical view of marijuana consumption, an influx of THC to these regions of the brain demonstrates rather obvious effects: panic and paranoia overtake the amygdala; the basal ganglia’s capability is slowed, and the cerebellum sees impaired coordination.⁶

Then, times began to change; social paradigms had been reconstructed, allowing for more unbiased glimpses into the effects of THC on the cognitive networks of the brain. 

The studies of yesterday, despite containing largely valid research, could no longer be considered unbiased, separate from the prohibitive authority that has abated today. 

Currently, we understand and go as far as to admit that there’s no way to effectively observe which receptors are being blocked or activated and, more than ever, we’re starting to see more capability surrounding the consumption of THC with respect to certain acts of creativity or cognition. 

While we’ve moved on from the close-mindedness of yesterday, we’re still saturated in shoulder-shrugs of uncertainty, acknowledging that there are far too many variables at play than we initially realized. 

“It is critical to keep in mind that the study of the endocannabinoid system should be region- and condition-specific, along with the consideration of other neurotransmission systems.”

But, again, it took a while to get here.


Before venturing forward, it’s sometimes necessary to look back, especially in the context of such a sensitive social issue that has seen new tides of perceptions wash away yesterday’s stubborn sentimentality.

As psychoactive boosters like cannabis and LSD began to creep into lifestyles that featured high-risk sports and athletics (i.e. surfing or snowboarding), questions began to sprout regarding the potential of cannabis, in particular, in sports and athletic functions. 

Among the very first studies exploring the potential performance-enhancing effects of cannabis, Steadman and Singh, in 1975, exposed 20 volunteers to smoke cannabis containing THC; a placebo control study group had also been studied, with THC “chemically removed” from the cannabis.⁸

“Subjects then underwent tests of muscular strength, physical work capacity, forced vital capacity (FVC), and flow rate of expiration. Cannabis use increased heart rate, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and reduced physical work capacity.”

The following decade, another study noted that cannabis use reduced physical work capacity compared with baseline results, that it raised heart rate, and increased metabolic rate.¹⁰

By the end of the 1980’s it was rather clear. The apparent socio-cultural dangers of cannabis far outweighed any need to continue further investigation into cannabis as a means to improve physical performance, finding that “although specific performance-enhancing effects of cannabis may be in doubt, the use of cannabis to facilitate relaxation and reduce anxiety may be indirectly perceived to improve performance, particularly in sports such as surfing and skiing. Athletes have also been shown to have higher pain thresholds than control.¹¹

In other words, there was a definitive ‘no’ when asked if cannabis improves physical performance, followed by a laundry-list of ‘but’s. 

The Current Landscape / Pseudo-Science

Now, the world of academia is a strange one. While it tries to (and often does) fulfill its obligation to scientific discovery, it’s not perfect, and far from being immune to the influence of the over-zealous, whether that zeal comes in the form of prohibition from days past or even, surprisingly, legalization in days to come. 

And so the tide has changed with respect to cannabis. What was once ‘no’ turned into ‘no, but…’, which then turned into ‘maybe’ and today stands at ‘we don’t know because we can’t know.. yet’. A frustrating, but at least, honest juncture. 

Troublesomely, there also percolates a new wave of pseudo-academic effort that is fervently pro-legalization because it is backed by aggressive financial interests, namely from start-ups and clusters of micro-businesses. 

Take, for instance, the swaths of health ‘research’ that has overpowered the health-product industry as a whole, working to substantiate unverified health claims under a relentless motive to sell; this in itself has extended to cannabis (CBD as a prime example) and is now expanding towards other substances like psilocybin — backed by so many start-ups and micro-distributors that regulatory health bodies cannot keep up with enforcing regulations. 

Nevertheless, real and unbiased studies are still being conducted and, despite possibly losing some spotlight to all the noise, good research is now equipped with better understandings. 

Contemporary Holistic Approaches 

As an example, we today see a much more holistic approach to measuring physiological responses stemming from the consumption of cannabis. One recent study comprehensively looked at factors beyond direct performance, assessing auxiliary considerations like recovery time or pain management — two vital considerations in the spheres of sustained athletic performance :

“Cannabis use has also recently been identified as helping athlete’s sleep time and recovery, which may favor performance when an athlete is facing multiple competitions in a short period” ¹²

“Cannabinoids suppress inflammatory response”¹³ 

“Evidence suggests that marijuana may be an effective treatment for chronic pain, neuropathic (nerve) pain, and muscle spasms” ¹⁴ 

The idea that THC exclusively curtails athletic performance has long since been thrown out the window, as today, modern studies are employing more rigorous and nuances investigations, testing much more specific and open-minded hypotheses. 

Numerous athletes currently experiment with the flow state and with psychoactive methods by which they can enhance their cognitive or physical performance. As will be detailed in forthcoming parts, there is much more to evaluate in this discussion, most of which is only now being communicated with impartial dialogue and with a deeper understanding of the various physiological systems that impact both mind and body. 

It’s also wholly necessary to note that cannabis consumption has been found to carry its own set of risks, some of which have been validated throughout the course of the last 50 years: an increased risk of heart attack, impaired motor skills and significant risk of lung damage are some of the major considerations to underscore in this discussion and something that ought to be reiterated. 

Despite this, we’re coming to learn of a quiet range of benefits that cannabis carries, one’s that can’t be expressly measured but detailed through the accounts of athletes who are, today, much more willing to share their insights. 

In the coming parts of this series, Borealism will look to cultivate and compile these insights to determine, independently of any academic or commercial ambition, whether or not there’s something more to all of this.