Why Marathon Runners Are Using Marijuana

As The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week, there is a growing debate over cannabis’s presence in ultramarathon running– a curious comingling of high-endurance athletes and cannabis users that we haven’t really seen before.

A primer: according to the Telegraph, “an ultra-marathon is any race longer than the classic marathon distance of 26.2 miles.”

Apparently, for participants in the long-range, grueling sport, cannabis’s mitigating effects on pain and nausea is an appealing remedy. Over the course of the race – often through mountains and across flat deserts, ultramarathoners are subject to intense muscle strain and body cramps as they run for more than 24 hours straight.

And as the sport becomes more popular––there were nearly 1,300 races in North America last year, up from 293 in 2004, according to data compiled by the magazine UltraRunning––marijuana is becoming an unlikely performance enhancer.

So far, regulators in charge of sporting events like the World Anti-Doping Agency and USA Track & Field have responded accordingly. A WADA spokesman told the Journal that the drug was banned in competitive events due to its enhancing properties as well as being an affront to the “‘spirit of sport.’” Jill Geer of the USATF followed suit, explaining that “‘[m]arijuana is on the banned list and should not be used by athletes at races[.]”

But according to a drug-testing expert quoted in the piece, bans on pot have more to do with politics than enhanced performance concerns. “It’s seen more as a drug of abuse than as a drug of performance enhancement,” said Don Catlin, a founder of the UCLA Olympic Analytic Laboratory. “You can find some people who argue that marijuana has performance-enhancing characteristics. They are few and far between,” he told the Journal.

But the proponents are often the ones out in the field. The article explained that few ultramarathoners were willing to go on record with their marijuana use, but a select number were open about use during training periods. The way they see it, it actually makes a lot of sense. One ultra runner explained that marijuana is in effect a variant of other common drugs athletes take during events like Advil of Tylenol.

A 2011 study in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics found that cannabis may statistically decrease pain effects; and a 2014 study from JAMA Internal Medicine found that there were fewer painkiller deaths in states that had legalized medical marijuana.

While the debate may seem peculiar, marijuana has always been a sore subject for athletes found to use the drug. Competitors in sports ranging from football, to snowboarding, to swimming have been chastised for using pot––but generally, drug use in those cases is recreational.

So as the legal landscape of the drug continually changes, it may be high time for the athletic regulatory community to reevaluate some of its policies. Indeed, there are some preliminary signs of this, too: in 2013, the WADA raised the allowable amount of THC to a level that would only be noticeable in athletes consuming marijuana during competition. In other words, an implicit nod to the benefits of the plant athletes may be seeking out in the first place. Moreover, testing for pot can be an expensive formality at events; for six tests at the 2014 Twin Cities Marathon, the United States Anti-Doping Agency charged the organizers $3,500, according to the Journal.

And anyway, in the world of ultramarathons––generally smaller, lower-budget events––organizers seem to have better things to worry about than sniffing out weed.