Runner’s High (and the Other Kind)

Pick your panacea: sweaty or smoky or both!

Runner’s high, that soft blanket of euphoria that envelops you after a workout, has long been linked to those feel-good chemicals known as endorphins that are released by exercise. But evidence is mounting that runner’s high may actually be caused by cannabinoids and more closely resemble a weed high. 

First, a biology lesson from cannabis specialist Jordan Tishler, M.D.: Phytocannabinoids are cannabis’ active ingredients. There are more than a hundred of them, with THC and CBD being the best known. Endocannabinoids are produced naturally inside the body as part of a system that helps us stay in physiological balance. Like their phytocannabinoid cousins, endocannabinoids modulate our mood, pain, and anxiety levels. But until recently, no one had any proof they could also get us high.

In 2015, German researchers set out to get the lowdown on runner’s high—to determine, once and for all, if it stemmed from endorphins or endocannabinoids. In a fascinating experiment, they had mice run on exercise wheels. As expected, all the mice enjoyed their little rodent euphoria. But when the scientists blocked their production of endocannabinoids (specifically anandamide, the so-called “bliss molecule”), their anxiety-free mood ended. The scientists concluded that although exercise boosts endorphins and endocannabinoids, it’s the latter that produces the high.

It wasn’t long before runners started enlisting themselves as lab rats. If endocannabinoids were the source of their cherished high, why not try to bring it on sooner by using cannabis pre-workout? Ultra-runners now swear by this.

University of Colorado-Boulder researchers found some supporting evidence in a recent online survey of marijuana users. Of the 620 respondents, nearly 82% endorsed using cannabis one hour before exercising and or within four hours afterward. The results, which they published in Frontiers of Public Health, found “approximately half reported that it increases their motivation to exercise.” 

Combining cannabis and exercise was associated with 43 more minutes of weekly aerobic exercise and 30 more minutes of weekly anaerobic exercise. This prompted researchers to suggest it may even be a way to help sedentary Americans get off the couch and exercise ­—because they actually enjoy it.
Before you tie on your Nikes and toke up, keep in mind there’s no definitive science on exercising while high. (This was an online survey, mind you.) Also, cannabis elevates heart rate and blood pressure, which puts extra stress on your cardiovascular system, something you don’t want if you have a history of heart trouble. 

If you still want to give it a try, Dr. Tishler recommends starting with a very low dose to see how you react. “While the exact mechanisms are not fully understood, it’s clear that cannabis can benefit people during their exercise routine when used judiciously,” he says. “Since we’re being fitness-conscious, I’d recommend avoiding smoking, and use cannabis by vaporizing flower [herbal cannabis]. This is the safest way, and should not be confused with oil pen devices.”