The District of Columbia recently marked the first anniversary of its legalization of recreational marijuana. And as the city is home to so many fitness-minded people, it’s likely that at least a few of them are wondering whether it makes sense, or whether it’s even safe, to incorporate pot into their exercise regimens.
Given the long-standing illegality of marijuana, there is not a large body of evidence about its effects on the human body. However, I spoke with a professional athlete who offered his own large body as testimony to the benefits of engaging in physical activity while stoned.
Activity hardly gets more physical — and grueling — than professional wrestling, and at 45, Rob Van Dam not only has been at it for well over two decades, he has performed at the highest level it has to offer. Van Dam’s real name is Robert Szatkowski. He was given his ring name by a promoter who thought he resembled the Belgian martial-arts movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme (not his real name, either, by the way). Van Dam once held the Extreme Championship Wrestling and World Wrestling Entertainment championships simultaneously, and, as one of the most acrobatic performers pro wrestling has ever seen, he remains a fan favorite to this day.
Another aspect in which the 6-foot, 235-pound Van Dam has stood out is his predilection for marijuana, which not only became a major part of his ring persona but also forms a very real part of his daily life. When reached by phone at his home in California, he explained to me that he doesn’t think of it as a performance enhancer so much as a “life enhancer.”
“I’ve been known to apply smoking to everything throughout the day,” he said. In particular, marijuana has helped him in “thinking good thoughts, because … in front of millions of people that paid to see you at your best, who expect you to be in action-figure shape and condition on that particular night for that moment, you’ve got to deliver.”
There is widespread agreement that marijuana can put users in a relaxed and positive frame of mind (although some can experience feelings of anxiety and paranoia), and for that reason, it can be considered a performance-enhancing drug, providing an athlete serenity and confidence he or she might not otherwise have had.
However, some of the science on marijuana also points to physical impairments. Gary Wadler, a noted authority on drugs in sports and an official with the World Anti-Doping Agency, has acknowledged marijuana’s role in “decreasing anxiety” but has also written that use adversely affects motor skills, reaction times, eye-hand coordination, perceptual accuracy, maximal exercise capacity and concentration.
A 2006 article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine stated that THC, the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana, “engenders a certain heaviness, marked relaxation, and excessive fatigue of the limbs.” The article also noted that, because the product is usually smoked, that practice can have “detrimental effects on the lungs, oral cavity and upper respiratory tract.”
On the other hand, a 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found, for all but the heaviest users, “no evidence that increasing exposure to marijuana adversely affects pulmonary function.” In fact, the study found some evidence of increased lung capacity, possibly because of users’ penchants for taking and sustaining deep inhalations.
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Of course, no one needs massive lung capacity more than Olympic swimmers, and arguably the greatest of all time, Michael Phelps, was infamously photographed taking a bong hit, for which he apologized repeatedly. But while Phelps has called his actions “regrettable,” several other sports stars have, like Van Dam, become cannabis advocates.
Ross Rebagliati of Canada won the first Olympic gold medal ever handed out for snowboarding, in 1998, then briefly had it taken away when he tested positive for marijuana, before officials realized that it wasn’t (yet) on their list of banned substances. Rebagliati subsequently went into the medical-marijuana business, and when reached by phone in British Columbia, he said, “The focus and the motivation combined [that cannabis provides] gives you a better workout, more often.
“As an athlete, there’s a lot of repetitive working out that goes on,” said Rebagliati, 44, “and going to the gym two, three hours a day for five days a week for years on end” gets monotonous. “To be able to spice it up in a natural way for an athlete is the best possible thing.”
He added that, “as far as focus is concerned” while high, he had “never seen anything like it.”
“All the distractions of your phone, the people next to you working out, it just goes away, and you’re just going to pound out the workout,” he said.
Another athlete moving into the world of marijuana entrepreneurship is Cliff Robinson, who had an 18-year career in the National Basketball Association and was the 1993 Sixth Man of the Year. Robinson was suspended twice for marijuana use, causing some wags to change his nickname, “Uncle Cliffy,” to “Uncle Spliffy,” and now he is using the latter moniker as the name of his new Oregon-based venture, which promises to produce “marijuana designed for athletes, also known as Sports Cannabis.”
Van Dam, too, was once suspended from his sport, after a 2006 incident in which police found him to be in possession of a large quantity of marijuana. That incident effectively ended his nascent reign atop the WWE, but it hardly made him less determined to promote cannabis. He points out that marijuana comes in different strains and that some, particularly in the sativa species, are better suited for high-energy activities, while others, often in the indica species, are more associated with classic “stoner” (i.e. couch-potato) behavior.
“If I want to relax and just chill out, consuming cannabis can help with that,” Van Dam said. “If I want to be active, if I’m going to go work out or have a match, then it can help with that, too.”
Some warn that marijuana’s propensity to elevate users’ heart rates poses a threat of cardiovascular events that can be increased through exercise. Rebagliati speculated that significant heart-rate problems might be a result of consuming too much marijuana in given sessions.
“There’s a sweet spot for everybody,” he said, noting that athletes getting into marijuana should start with “one small puff.”
Rebagliati also posited that marijuana can increase metabolism and referred to a recent study that concluded that, counter to the traditional perception of pot, it helps users lower their average body mass index. That study suggested those reductions in weight were, for younger users, most likely attributed to choosing marijuana over high-calorie alcohol.
For older users, the study suggested that they were getting pain-relief benefits, contributing to “an increase in physical wellness and frequent exercise.” And if there is a topic on which Van Dam is an expert, it’s pain management.
Pro wrestling matches sometimes stretch to exhausting lengths of up to half an hour, during which performers subject themselves to “the dives, the crashes, the falls to the floor, the slams, the suplexes, the power bombs through the tables.”
Van Dam estimated that he undergoes the equivalent of “50 car crashes in 10 minutes in the ring” and has had “hundreds of concussions.”
Of course, folks thinking about getting high for, say, their evening runs don’t have to worry about that kind of damage. They also might not react to marijuana as positively as Van Dam and Rebagliati have — everyone has his or her own internal chemistry — but the pair at least offer examples of athletes who were able to reach impressive heights while getting high.