Science

Inconclusive studies haven’t deterred enthusiasts from claiming marijuana as a performance-enhancing drug, from Ganja Yoga to the world’s first ‘cannabis gym’. By Gillian Terzis.

Marijuana use in sport

Runners at the start of a race during the San Francisco 420 Games.
Credit: Richard Haick

Jim McAlpine wants to give stoners an image makeover. “I hate that word, personally,” he says. It’s not hard to see why. For a long time, being a stoner carried a certain stigma. Marijuana use does not typically signal productivity (as Adderall might) or material success (cocaine). An anecdotal survey of share-house ads suggests one’s capacity for fun is highly correlated with imbibing a “cheeky” glass of wine after work. The stoner in popular culture – baked and bingeing on Domino’s – has tended to rank lower on the ladder of aspiration. Riedel glasses and crystal stemware dominate wedding registries; a Volcano vaporiser, on the other hand, is nowhere to be seen.

In California and much of America’s West Coast, attitudes toward marijuana have been fairly permissive and mainstream. Now, as venture capitalists and Silicon Valley add more financing to the green rush, the industry has been yuppified. Start-ups such as Eaze and Meadow deliver beautifully packaged, luxury marijuana products that seem far removed from the stoner aesthetic of yore. Vapes emit subtle plumes and serve as discreet status objects; one popular model, the Pax Ploom, resembles an iPod Nano. Some dispensaries, such as the ornate Barbary Coast in San Francisco, have plush smoking rooms and velvet Chesterfield sofas. The passing of Proposition 64 – the legalisation of marijuana for recreational use – has courted concern not from moralisers or conservatives but from those who fear the advent of Big Weed. 

McAlpine wants to shift perceptions of marijuana users as couch-locked, slothful and unmotivated – by promoting its association with sport. “I want to show through athletics that it doesn’t mean you’re lazy,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you’re stupid.” In 2014 he founded the 420 Games, a kind of Olympiad for pot enthusiasts featuring mountain bike races, half marathons, triathlons and a 4.2-mile run. The games are named for the insider code denoting 4.20am/pm as traditional times for smoking weed, as well as the date April 20, observed as a smokers’ cultural day. All runners competing in the games wear a bib with the same number: 420.

In May next year McAlpine will open Power Plant Fitness to the public, the world’s first “cannabis gym”, where members will be allowed to consume marijuana on site to help improve their athletic performance. It’s a large-scale realisation of a dream he has had since he was 17 years old, creating a cannabis gym of his own in his parents’ garage.

Smoking inside Power Plant Fitness will not be permitted, but members will be allowed to consume edibles or vape. New members will be supervised by a trainer, who will assess their suitability for cannabis use and evaluate dosage levels to enhance the longevity or quality of their exercise regimen. “The first workout is always sober,” McAlpine says. Cannabis will then be introduced in subsequent sessions at a “micro-dose”, and trainers will assess whether marijuana has benefited or detracted from the workout. The gym will also produce its own line of edibles and ointments targeted specifically at athletes. So far these include a “focus spray” that allows exercisers to control their doses right down to the milligram, a recovery serum to treat joint pain, and a balm with a high proportion of cannabidiol, which helps to ease inflammation.

McAlpine, an avid snowboarder, has combined these twin passions since he was teenager. For him, the most crucial benefits of pot use were psychological. Using marijuana before exercise allowed his mind to reach a “flow state”, he says, “when you’re fluidly, athletically performing without cognitively thinking about it”. A keen ocean swimmer, he regularly undertakes three-kilometre swims around Alcatraz and Lake Tahoe. His biggest challenge is motivation – he would often find himself bored partway through. He says marijuana helps him focus. He’ll ingest a 90-milligram edible containing marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient THC before he hops into the water. That dosage level isn’t for everyone, as McAlpine points out: what gives him a psychological edge could induce a literal nightmare for the average person.

Ross Rebagliati, a former Olympic snowboarder for Canada, concurs. At the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998, Rebagliati was briefly stripped of his gold medal in the men’s giant slalom after testing positive to marijuana, but the decision was overturned as marijuana was not yet on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances. “Instead of shying away from it, I felt like we needed to get behind it and promote it and support the people in the world who use it,” Rebagliati says. He believes “most people involved in skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, cycling, and all those surfing and extreme sports tend to gravitate to cannabis use”, but there’s appeal for other sporting types, too. “I think athletes appreciate that – zero calories, zero fat. If you’re pounding beers all night long, it’s hard to diet.” Rebagliati has also founded a line of marijuana products for sportspeople called Ross’ Gold, and recently opened a dispensary in Kelowna, British Columbia. In 2013 WADA increased the allowable level of THC for athletes.

For the lesser co-ordinated, there are gentler sporting options. Dee Dussault, the founder of Ganja Yoga, runs regular classes at Merchants of Reality, an artists’ warehouse in San Francisco’s tech-centric SoMa district. A few weeks ago I climbed a staircase and followed the aroma to a room where about 20 people sat in a circle, vaping and smoking various sativa strains – for an energetic, euphoric high – and eating medicated popcorn. During the intermission we would later switch to indica strains for the meditative segment of the class. The crowd ranged from twentysomethings to men and women in their 50s and 60s; most were regulars but there were also several first-timers, such as me. Three people remarked upon the softness of my mat.

Before the yoga session began, we went around the circle, introducing ourselves and explaining why we were there. Some people wanted to work on problem areas, such as their shoulders or upper back; others wanted to reap the benefits of an “altered practice”. A taut man in his 50s exclaimed “This is my Wednesday night!” to cheers. One woman said, “I’m here because I want to be present.” Three twentysomething guys in college sweatshirts admitted, somewhat sheepishly, that they were here because it seemed cool. This was a judgement-free zone. “The divine stoner in me sees the divine stoner in you,” Dussault said. Then the class began in earnest.

This seemed a world away from the yoga I had done in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, where the classes were silent and brimming with intimidating physical specimens. Dussault’s class seemed to bridge the gap between pot lovers and yoga devotees, two groups that might have had little crossover in the past. There was less emphasis on nailing form and more emphasis on relaxation and an awareness of new sensations. “Downward-facing dog” proved a challenge for some, and we returned often to the “corpse pose”. “Don’t worry about what your neighbour is doing,” Dussault said. She told us to focus on how we felt. At one point we were encouraged to make “horsey lips” while loosening our limbs. This seemed like an unorthodox move, but Ganja Yoga is no place for cynicism or self-seriousness – this is California, after all. It would have been quite the sight: a group of grown-ups working themselves into a frenzy, wriggling their bodies and blowing raspberries. It sparked a contagion of giggles.

Scientific literature on the effects of cannabis on athletic performance remains scant – most of the evidence at present appears to be anecdotal. A study published in Sports Medicine, led by Marilyn Huestis, previously senior investigator and chief of chemistry and drug metabolism at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, reported mixed results. Their findings suggested performance-enhancing qualities included a reduction in anxiety, improved sleep and recovery, and muscle relaxation, which could yield psychological benefits for athletes performing under stress. Another study found cyclists’ performances deteriorated slightly, but their blood pressure decreased while airflow to their lungs increased.

As legalisation efforts continue apace across the United States, it’s likely that more research will ensue – as well as a deeper dialogue about athletes and marijuana use. Currently the National Football League and National Basketball League both include marijuana as a prohibited substance, but are now facing calls to shift their hardline stance. McAlpine’s business partner, Ricky Williams, is a former NFL running back who openly advocated for the ban to be lifted. Meanwhile, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr admitted using medical marijuana to cope with a ruptured disc. McAlpine sees these public declarations as a way for cannabis users to “step out of the darkness, into the light”.

“People are willing to put their name on the line and say they’re cannabis users,” he says. “Besides legalisation, I think that’s probably the biggest thing that’s going to change the perception of what this plant is.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 17, 2016 as "Running, man". Subscribe here.

Gillian Terzis
is a San Francisco-based writer.

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