Marijuana and Performance: Does Using Weed Help or Hinder Your Mountain Biking?

A serious look at how marijuana affects mountain bike performance.
Teal Stetson-Lee, Nevada’s first cannabis-backed professional athlete. Photo © Marcello Rostagni, 2017

Go for a ride and crack a beer trailside, or enjoy one afterward. Clearly beer is embraced by mountain bikers. In fact, it’s weird for a brewery to NOT have a cycling jersey for sale with their logo on it. Furthermore, there are a slew of health benefits to cracking a fizzy cold one, with a lot of science to back it up (just ask Europe).

But regardless of how much the mountain biking community reveres beer as a giver of sustenance and good times, the association between sport and marijuana use is categorized and stereotyped very differently. Plus there’s that whole “federally illegal” thing expanding the canyon between perception and reality. But, should there be a difference, really? The ethical answer to this is up to you, as well as USA Cycling, WADA, the DEA, FDA, Congress… yadda yadda yadda.

According to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the following substances are prohibited in competition. They are listed in the same category as banned narcotics/opioids and stimulants such as ephedrine:

  • Naturally-derived cannabinoids from “cannabis, hashish and marijuana, or synthetic delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).” Synthetics include Marinol, Syndros, and Cesamet, all of which ironically were just FDA approved.
  • Cannabimimetics, which include Spice, JWH-018, JWH-073, and HU-210.

Recently, professional enduro mountain biker and cyclocross racer Teal Stetson-Lee became the first athlete in Nevada to be backed by a cannabis business, KYND Cannabis Company. Nevada passed a law allowing recreational marijuana use in 2016. Should she be looked at in a critical light because of her sponsorship? Would she be if her sponsor were a business associated with the alcohol industry? Whatever the perception may be, the current classification of cannabinoids as a banned substance could prove problematic for Stetson-Lee if she chooses to use marijuana regularly while competing.

Ethics and opinions aside, the prohibition against the medical and recreational use of marijuana is slowly receding, despite its federal illegality and categorization as a Schedule 1 drug (right alongside heroin and cocaine). At this time, 29 states have legalized some form of medicated consumption, and seven of them plus Washington DC (ironic!) allow for recreational use.

The 350 pounds of marijuana seized from former world champion mountain biker Melissa “Missy” Giove in 2009. Click here for the story.

But unlike the questionable medicinal utility of other Schedule 1 drugs, scientists are starting to publish some legitimate information on the clinical uses of cannabis, which just begs for further trials. In fact, one particular molecule in the present spotlight, cannabidiol (CBD), is being reviewed for its use as an effective treatment in certain types of epilepsy and seizures among children (and it has no psychoactive effects when used). Recently, the United Nations (UN) and World Health Organization (WHO) prompted discussion on how to classify CBD, primarily because of its benefit to certain neurological disorders. The FDA is questioning whether or not it should follow suit.

It’s hard to ignore the movement, especially with respectable media outlets such as TIME, National Geographic, and The Atlantic dedicating a lot of word space to the subject. It can be applied to any population, including our dirt-loving one. How many people do you know that have eaten a brownie or toked on a joint before, during, or after a ride? How does it effect performance?

Like any other drug, the effects depend on the dose, route of administration, strain, and tolerance level of the individual taking it. Granted, the science isn’t as vast as on other topics, mainly due to the legal difficulty in conducting full-scale studies. But what is available does matter.

Let’s check it out.

Hitting a pipe trailside — a practice that is not that uncommon. How does it make you feel physically and mentally?

Pain Tolerance

The number one reason patients obtain a medical marijuana card is for chronic pain. In 2015, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) released an article on the potential efficacy of marijuana in the treatment of neuropathic and chronic pain, as well as individuals suffering from multiple sclerosis. This clinical concept can be easily translated to performance on the bike.

The effects of marijuana on pain tolerance have been researched for some time (here’s an article from 1975), and the majority have concluded positive effects. The mechanism of action happens when the peripheral/sensory cannabinoid receptors (CB2) are activated, promoting an analgesic effect. What happens when your Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) improves? You can pedal longer… find your way deep into that pain cave.

Effects on the Cardiovascular System

Vasculature: According to research conducted at the Medical College of Virginia at Virginia Commonwealth University and the School of Pharmacy at the University of Connecticut, the vascular endothelium (the cells that line our blood vessels) contain cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2.

CB1 receptors, originally thought to only be active in the central nervous system, play a seemingly significant role in regulating the growth and proliferation of endothelial cells and new blood vessels. This process is called “angiogenesis.” The CB1 receptors do this by way of their functional effects on MAP kinase cascades, a major regulator in endothelial angiogenic activities.  When the CB1 receptors are activated by certain cannabinoids, they signal downstream effects that stimulate the expansion of somatic blood vessel quantity.

A greater number of blood vessels leads to an increased delivery of blood to working tissues, such as cardiac and skeletal muscle, the liver, and other organs that play an essential role in exercise performance for mountain bikers.

Nitric oxide (NO) production:  CB2 receptors are located primarily in the periphery and play an important role in the immune system and certain sensory locations. A study conducted in 2006 analyzed the effects of delta-9-THC, the primary psychoactive cannabinoid found in marijuana, on cardiac cells. When the CB2 receptors were activated by THC, NO production was stimulated, protecting cardiac cells against low-oxygen conditions (hypoxia).

This is important for cyclists performing high-intensity exercise in any environmental condition, as delivery of oxygen to the heart and other cells is limited by an individual’s cardiac output. In addition, mountain bikers traveling to high-altitude regions may also benefit from increased NO stimulation, as its effects on vasculature lead to dilation of blood vessels, allowing for more blood (and therefore oxygen) delivery to where it is needed.

Increased resting heart rate: A comprehensive study conducted in 2013 analyzed the effects of four substances commonly used by athletes on performance — caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and THC. According to the researchers, THC has been shown to increase resting heart rate, and to decrease work capacity at an absolute heart rate when compared to a placebo. These negative effects are also of particular importance if you use heart rate zones or thresholds as a training tool. Unfortunately, it’s a normal side effect of getting high, and the higher the dose, the higher the risk for resting tachycardia.

Blood pressure: The medical community is currently debating the effects of cannabis use on blood pressure, but the overall consensus isn’t good for performance.

Acute use of marijuana can lead to low blood pressure upon rapid movement, like standing (orthostatic hypotension). Most agree on this. However, some researchers conclude that prolonged use can lead to an overall decrease in supine blood pressure and a decrease in peripheral resistance and pressure, which negatively affects performance. A recent study published by Georgia State University has concluded that long-term use can lead to an increased risk of mortality due to hypertension.

Lower blood pressure isn’t a benefit during high-intensity and maximal exercise. As pressure, blood vessel diameter, and blood volume all have effects on cardiac output and work capacity, a lower pressure at high-intensity and maximal workloads puts extra load on the heart to maintain delivery, and heart rate increases. You will inevitably reach max faster, and at a lower work capacity.

Effects of THC on the cardiovascular system during exercise. From Pesta, et al., 2013.

It May Help You Relax

Marijuana may decrease pre-performance anxiety and stress, boosting self-confidence and positive feelings. Appropriately, this is the primary reason athletes use it–mountain bikers included.

Several highly-respected journals have published research on the neurological effects of THC and CBD on mood disorders. In 2011, the journal Neuropsychopharmacology released an article discussing the positive effects of CBD on patients with generalized social anxiety disorder, where administration significantly reduced anxiety, cognitive impairment, and discomfort.

Another study analyzed the effects of CBD on the 5-HT1a receptor, the major player in serotonin-specific mood disorders such as anxiety and depression (this is the same family of receptors that certain anti-depressants act upon). Results show positive effects as an agonist, which would perhaps promote downstream effects as if a naturally-occurring neurotransmitter were binding to it, but more research needs to be conducted.

Edible marijuana comes in a variety of types and doses, the “gummy” being the most common and consumed in medical and recreational markets.

On the flip side… Too much or inappropriate application may have an opposite effect — you may have an inhibited ability to listen to your body, or you may feel slow (weed-induced “couch lock” is real!).  Decreased reaction time isn’t beneficial during a technically-challenging ride.

“I actually hate smoking before I ride,” said an avid mountain biker from Prescott, AZ, who also uses marijuana fairly often. “It makes my lungs burn way earlier into the ride. Plus, I just feel lazy and less confident on the bike.”

Loss of precision may lead to an unintended mistake and increased risk for injury, but if you’re not doing something super hardcore, pot won’t really have a negative impact on your ability to ride, according to a study conducted last year in Germany. RAD.

What about edibles? “I don’t know that I’ve ever tried pre-ride edibles. That could def be marketed, take note!” he said. The effects of marijuana differ among users. One strain may have opposite effects on two people, based primarily on psychological and physiological differences. The route of administration and dose definitely matter, too.

Another classic medible: pot brownies.

Sleep and Recovery

Strains that contain THC and cannabinol (CBN), as well as terpenes that promote relaxation, such as myrcene and linalool (the primary terpene found in lavender), have been shown to help users with insomnia and other sleep issues. Acute use may help improve sleep by decreasing the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, as well as increasing the amount of time spent in deep sleep, which is the most restorative part of the sleep cycle. Improved sleep quality, regardless of the mechanism of action, has a positive effect on recovery, reaction time, and work output during training.

However, discontinuation effects may be present, to include difficulty falling asleep. Chronic or heavy marijuana users may suffer from sleep disturbances and reduced REM sleep, which would be counterproductive to any sort of training and recovery gains.

Anti-Inflammatory Properties

Cannabis has been used as an anti-inflammatory medication for a long time. Its use as an analgesic may also tie into this indirectly, as some pain is associated with chronic inflammation.

How does it work? Studies show that certain cannabinoids downregulate cytokine and chemokine activity–molecules responsible for pro-inflammatory effects. Activation of CB2, one of two cannabinoid receptors found in the body, promotes a reduction in other inflammatory markers and mediators, including NF-kB and AP-1.

Click the chart to enlarge. From Nagarkatti, et al., 2009.

Why does this matter? Chronic inflammation is a detriment to performance in several ways. If associated with pain (say, joint pain and stiffness), workouts may be truncated or altered in fear of further injury. It also impairs recovery.

On the flip side, acute inflammation from a bout of exercise is actually a signal used in muscular adaptation. It is a necessary part of the training process, and this is different than chronic inflammation associated with disease.

Should marijuana be used while mountain biking?

Ultimately, the decision is personal. It is based on the needs of the individual, as is taking any other supplement, ergogenic aid, or choosing to consume alcohol. More importantly, there are risks and benefits to everything we put in our bodies, and not everyone has the same reaction to cannabis.

Unlike the aforementioned options, utilization of pot is based on legality. If you live in a state where recreational use is legal, then you have way more freedom to choose to use if you want to.  If you live in a medical state, then you need a valid medical reason to obtain a medical marijuana (MMJ) card through a clinic. If your state is behind the curve, then… sorry about your legal luck. And of course, if you compete in mountain biking events, you should not use any substance that is banned by the governing body.

The line dividing “use” vs. “do not use” is not precisely clear, but a few things can be derived based on what we know. For acute help with sleep, nervousness, or seasonal depression, users may find marijuana to be a tremendous aid. For pain, the science is pretty legitimate. It really comes down to the dose, the strain, and the overall composition of what is being consumed (who knew weed could be so complicated).

If you’re worried about interference with heart rate thresholds, cardiovascular recovery, or blood pressure, then consuming cannabis may not be a wise choice. The body has an endocannabinoid system for a reason, and like everything else, it depends on two things:  what we are seeking and how we treat it.

Tell us in the comments section: What do YOU think?

For more information, check out the references below:

Atakan, Z. (2012). Cannabis, a complex plant: different compounds and different effects on individuals. Therapeutic advances in psychopharmacology2(6), 241-254.

Gillman, A.S., Hutchison, K.E. & Bryan, A.D. Sports Med (2015) 45: 1357.

Hartung, B., Schwender, H., Roth, E. H., Hellen, F., Mindiashvili, N., Rickert, A., … & Daldrup, T. (2016). The effect of cannabis on regular cannabis consumers’ ability to ride a bicycle. International journal of legal medicine130(3), 711-721.

Jones, R. T. (2002). Cardiovascular system effects of marijuana. The Journal of Clinical Pharmacology42(S1).

Klein, T. W. (2005). Cannabinoid-based drugs as anti-inflammatory therapeut

Nagarkatti, P., Pandey, R., Rieder, S. A., Hegde, V. L., & Nagarkatti, M. (2009). Cannabinoids as novel anti-inflammatory drugs. Future1(7), 1333-1349.

Pesta, D. H., Angadi, S. S., Burtscher, M., & Roberts, C. K. (2013). The effects of caffeine, nicotine, ethanol, and tetrahydrocannabinol on exercise performance. Nutrition & metabolism10(1), 71.

Shmist, Y. A., Goncharov, I., Eichler, M., Shneyvays, V., Isaac, A., Vogel, Z., & Shainberg, A. (2006). Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol protects cardiac cells from hypoxia via CB2 receptor activation and nitric oxide production. Molecular and cellular biochemistry283(1-2), 75-83.

Yankey, B. A., Rothenberg, R., Strasser, S., Ramsey-White, K., & Okosun, I. S. (2017). Effect of marijuana use on cardiovascular and cerebrovascular mortality: A study using the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey linked mortality file. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 2047487317723212.