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Dr. Darrell Menard: Can Mary Jane Help You Train?

Ask the Expert – Can Mary Jane Help You Train?

Artcle by Dr. Darrell Menard

Dr. Darrell-Menard

There are many questions concerning the impact legalizing cannabis will have on operational readiness in the CAF.  One major concern is the potential for negative health effects such as lung damage, mental health problems and addiction.  Another important concern is the effect cannabis use may have on fitness training and physical performance.

A wide variety of cannabis products will be available and they will affect people uniquely depending on the different plant strains used, the product potency, the amount used, how it’s consumed and if it’s used in combination with medications, other drugs and alcohol. “Street” cannabis is even more unpredictable because you can’t be certain about its contents or potency. Regardless of the source, cannabis is a complex drug and it is difficult to predict how CAF personnel will respond to using cannabis as part of their fitness program.

Little research has been done concerning how cannabis affects exercise and physical performance. In 2017, the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport published a review that found only 15 scientific articles on cannabis and exercise and some of these studies were of questionable quality.  The Canadian Centre for Excellence in Sport has stated there isn’t enough scientific evidence to consider cannabis a meaningful performance enhancer. Recognizing the limited scientific information on this topic, let’s look at its effects on exercise.

To date, scientists have found cannabis offers very few exercise advantages.  The advantages outlined below are small and may not be realized by most people. Cannabis has been used to reduce pain, allowing some people to push harder when they exercise.  This dangerous training strategy increases the risk of injury from over training.  It also permits some people to keep training with injuries, increasing the risk of worsening their injuries.  Some people feel cannabis enhances their workout recovery because of its anti-inflammatory and sleep enhancing properties.  However, many individuals don’t experience this benefit because cannabis disrupts their sleep.  After using cannabis, some people may feel energized, motivated and mentally better prepared to train. Most people experience the opposite effect.  For some, the euphoria caused by cannabis use makes exercising more enjoyable but most people find the negative side effects of cannabis make exercising an unpleasant experience.  Some people use cannabis to reduce their performance anxiety, this strategy has very little application in the day-to-day fitness training of CAF personnel.

While there is minimal evidence cannabis is a performance enhancer, there is a larger body of evidence indicating cannabis is a physical performance reducer.  The disadvantages of exercising with cannabis include the following:

  1. No evidence cannabis improves strength;
  2. Cannabis has been shown to reduce performance during maximal exercise testing;
  3. Pregnant women, regardless of their physical activity level, should avoid using cannabis because substances in cannabis can cross the placenta and affect the developing fetus;
  4. Cannabis use significantly increases heart rate and causes a small increase in blood pressure. This increases the risk of heart attack and stroke during exercise – especially for people with heart disease;
  5. Feeling stoned – cannabis can cause dizziness, anxiety, disorientation, sedation, paranoia, hallucinations and fatigue and this will reduce the desire to train and inhibit physical performance;
  6. Cannabis may reduce motivation, coordination, concentration, memory, position sense, balance, motor skills and reaction time. These side effects will reduce physical performance and increase the risk of injury especially doing high speed/complex activities such as hockey, weightlifting and cycling.
  7. Cannabis use may also lead to risk taking behaviours that increase the potential for injury;
  8. Cannabis gives some people the “munchies” – not helpful if you are trying to lose weight
  9. For military personnel competing at the national, international or CISM level, the World Anti-Doping Agency considers cannabis a prohibited substance (during competition) – this won’t change when Canada legalizes cannabis.
  10. For CAF personnel, employed outside of Canada, who plan to use cannabis as part of their fitness program, DAOD 9004-1 (“Use of Cannabis by CAF Members”) prohibits the use of cannabis outside of Canada. It also outlines restrictions on cannabis use by certain occupations within Canada.

The bottom line: research shows cannabis is at best a minimal performance enhancer and for most people will likely be a performance reducer.  Considering this, I recommend you “pass on using grass” because of its potential to cause harmful health effects, negatively impact your fitness training and increase your risk of injury.  As far as using cannabis to light a fire under your butt, if you aren’t a regular exerciser, it is unlikely cannabis will make it any easier to tie up your running shoes and go for a workout.  Train smart and remember exercise is medicine!

Performing high won’t make you a high performer!

Dr. Darrell Menard OMM MD, Dip Sport Med

Dr. Menard is the Surgeon General’s specialist advisor in sports medicine and has worked extensively with athletes from multiple sports.  As part of the Strengthening the Forces team he works on injury prevention and promoting active living.

Strengthening the Forces is CAF/DND’s healthy lifestyles promotion program providing expert information, skills and tools for promoting and improving CAF members’ health and well-being.