Cannabis and Athletic Performance — Part II: CBD and THC as Athletic Instruments
There are numerous ways by which cannabis has been integrating itself into the sportive world as a means to directly or indirectly enhance performance, many accounts of which are only finally starting to trickle into mainstream media.
In this, the second part of a series entitled Cannabis and Athletic Performance, we’ll look at two case studies that reflect two diverse and distinct ways by which the psychoactive and therapeutic qualities of THC and CBD are redefining our understanding of cannabis as a beneficial mechanism in the context of sportive performance.
Part I of this tripartite string of articles reviewed the current landscape with respect to cannabis as it had come to be understood throughout history, amidst changing tides of social perception and confused efforts to grasp at actualizing benefits or drawbacks of cannabis use.
It’s worth also reiterating that both historical and modern studies do validate the deleterious effects of consuming pot — namely, lung damage, increased risk of heart attack or heart disease and impaired motor function — to name a key few.
Nevertheless, trends are seeing the application of cannabis into a variety of sportive contexts, either for alleviating social anxiety, improving focus and performance, or various recovery and pain-management methodologies. Such findings fall far from those initially studied decades prior, as we’re now coming to learn that cannabis, in all actuality, can be beneficial in more ways than we had initially realized.
CBD: Combating Social Anxiety
The life of an athlete isn’t simply limited to physical performance. There are countless factors at play and innumerable dynamics to take into account — one such element: social pressure.
Many sports contain a strong social element — either those in which aesthetic presentation is key (i.e. figure skating) or highly-competitive sports (i.e. martial arts) whereby athletes rely on an unwavering mental fortitude to achieve various measures of success over an opponent.
One such athlete is Liz “Girl-Rilla” Carmouche, an mixed-martial arts fighter with Bellator MMA who had been open and willing to provide her insights relating to her use of CBD as a means to ease the social anxiety that she typically experiences from combat. Additionally, she finds CBD to be helpful with her recovery — a commonly expressed and studied benefit that will be explored further in Part III of this series.¹
In Liz’s words:
“Mentally, I find it reduces my anxiety and negative thoughts. Physically, I’ve found its the best anti-inflammatory.”
I asked Liz if it seemed to be a focus thing, whereby she’s able to shut off the social noise and direct her attention towards her physical effort, or if it seemed more like it had been something neurochemical at play — like a social switch being flipped in her mind. Her answer:
“It helps mitigate social anxiety I have from combat — it reduces it… I think it’s neurochemical.”
Of course, there’s no way that Liz can be sure without undergoing an MRI — we had been speaking vaguely about the apparent nature of the effect. Regardless of how it actually works, scientific consensus is currently firm on the position that it does, in fact, work:
“We found that existing preclinical evidence strongly supports CBD as a treatment for generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive–compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder when administered acutely”² — Esther Blessing et. al.
However, the world of athletics is cautious in its regulatory acknowledgements and rather reluctant to open the doors for change. For Liz, it’s something that has yet materialized into a full-on solution for the social pressure she faces:
“It’s been difficult to use CBD with the restrictions because of fighting. The tests don’t differentiate between THC and CBD”.
Nevertheless, with the scientific community largely touting the benefits of CBD as an anti-anxiety remedy, and a multitude of other sources advertising the benefits of CBD as a prominent resource for physical recovery (as will be explored in Part III of this series), THC is still facing it’s own particularly daunting hurdle to overcome, one that is has largely battled with since cannabis had first become popularized in our Western culture.
THC: The X-Factor
By far, the most difficult aspect of cultivating insights from athletes who currently use cannabis in an athletic context is the fact that, due to social stigmas and regulatory requirements, there is very little willingness for individuals to come forward and share their experience.
Fortunately, there exists a considerable number of semi-professional and professional athletes who are willing to share their experience under conditions of anonymity.
One such individual, speaking under such a condition, is someone that we may refer to by the alias of John Adams - a prior and current competitor of the X-Games.
While John asked that I not reveal the specific sport and category that he is competing in, he is allowing me to specify that it involves a slopestyle event (meaning either skiing or snowboarding) whereby he is measured on his ability to achieve a high score based on a variety of factors like amplitude (height achieved by the rider), difficulty, execution, and progression (innovative tricks or methodology).
John advised that, since he had begun riding at a young age, he had used cannabis in a recreational way, simply considering it to be part of the culture and environment of this particular sport.
“After a while, it turned into less of a thing to do for fun and more of something to help me focus… to get into the zone.”
John went on to describe how smoking cannabis (he couldn’t recall exactly how much he started with but now smokes roughly a quarter of a gram before practicing for events) would eventually shift him into a different mindset whereby he could direct all of his energy and attention towards refining his techniques and improving upon his form.
“It helps me tune out all the other noise.”
To this day, John still uses it as a means of improving his ability or simply to assert his engagement with the activity, if not to just let loose and relax; he doesn’t smoke before actual competitions simply because he doesn’t feel the need to - at this stage in his career.
“When I first started, I was too worried about being disqualified, but I honestly feel that if I was able to smoke before an actual event, I would have probably performed a bit better… That was then. Now, I don’t really need to [smoke] as much as I just want to, you know?”
I asked John to describe to me, in as much detail as possible, how cannabis specifically helped him focus. His theory had revolved around the fact that it helped him tune into his maneuvers more than he would otherwise be able to:
“It wasn’t like time slowed exactly but it was like I was more aware of my momentum and my form… More in the moment and able to concentrate more on my technicals.”
He had also detailed the way it helped him calm his nerves, insulate him from distractions and ultimately get him into the right state of mind whereby he was relaxed and not as tense as he otherwise wood be — the right kind of mental environment that is conducive towards a better performance.
One particularly expansive paper, published in 2011, found that correlative studies and investigations into this topic showed both an increase and a decrease in cognitive function as a result of THC consumption, writing off the discrepancy as being symbolic of the consumer themselves and the style of consumption:
“These discrepant findings may be explained by the characteristics of the subjects studied; Haney et al. (1999) and Hart et al. (2001) studied chronic, daily cannabis smokers, whereas the subjects used in Morrison et al. (2009) were infrequent cannabis users.”³
Of those who had been frequent smokers, however, like John and many other athletes, the paper asserted that:
“Performance on a tracking task, which requires sustained attention, was found to improve significantly after the high dose of THC, relative to the other conditions. Similarly, Haney et al. (1999) found that after acute intoxication, daily cannabis users significantly improved on a task of divided attention.”⁴