Is Pot the Next EPO?

Cannabis is considered a performance-enhancing drug, but marijuana legalization is reducing the stigma for recreational use

Colorado’s Avery Collins isn’t shy about his fondness for marijuana, but he certainly doesn’t live up to the classic stoner stereotype.

He’s a top American ultrarunner who finished sixth in this year’s Western States 100, one of the most competitive trail running races in the world. The 25-year-old resident of Steamboat Springs admits he regularly uses cannabis products recreationally and during long training runs to help reduce anxiety, keep aches and pains at bay and elevate the fun factor. But he says he has never entertained the idea of using it in races, not only because it’s illegal to use in competition, but also because he says he’s not sure what might happen under the influence of pot in the final stretches of a 100-mile race and he doesn’t want to risk months of training by blowing up or testing positive after the race.

Pot is legal in Colorado and Collins is a huge advocate of it, so much so that he is sponsored by two marijuana edible brands.

“Enjoyment and fulfillment of life is where pot and running intersect for me,” he says. “I absolutely enjoy running and in the same token (pun intended) I enjoy cannabis use,” Collins says. “For me going on a run is a way to escape from work and everything else and be away from civilization. Cannabis use helps to continue that, and helps me completely forget about the things in life that aren’t that big of a deal.”

Elite ultrarunner Avery Collins uses marijunana products recreationally and in training, but he says he has not and will not run races under the influence of any form of cannabis. Photo courtesy of Avery Collins

Still, regardless of your personal beliefs about pot and even your local state laws, what’s clear is that many runners—especially trail runners, it seems—are using marijuana for recovery, recreation and even a performance boost. However, in the world of competitive running and other sports, cannabinoids—the primary psychoactive compounds in marijuana—are considered a performance-enhancing drug. Marijuana use is banned by both the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in competition.

However, the allowed level—150 nanograms per milliliter of urine—is such that athletes should be able to use marijuana recreationally during training, and still fall within allowable levels as long as they stop using in time to test clean for competition. As for what that time period is, USADA is unable to pinpoint that given a wide range of factors, such as an athlete’s metabolism, how marijuana is consumed, as well as the “quality, potency, and concentration of the product.”

That said, both USADA and the Clean Sport Collective advise athletes not to use cannabinoids at any time due to the risk of positive anti-doping test. THC is stored equally in blood and body fat. How quickly it breaks down varies from person to person, but for those with less body fat, there is less storage area, and it generally clears out of the system faster. However, it also depends how much and how often you use it. For frequent tokers, THC may appear in blood serum or urine even if they haven’t used recently.

“We are fully aligned with WADA, USADA on their banned substances list and feel strongly it is the athlete’s responsibility to understand what is banned,” says Kevin Burnette one of the founders of the Clean Sport Collective, a grassroots organization championing athletes who train and compete without performance-enhancing drugs. “Building on the athlete responsibility, and further reason an athlete should not use pot in competition and highly consider not using it out of competition, is the issue of the inability of it to be third party verified and the risk of cross contamination. For anyone making their livelihood through running the risk is just too high.”

Many cannabis-infused edibles, like those pictured above, are the size and shape of sports nutrition products runners consume for calories and electrolytes on a run. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Why would a runner or triathlete want to use marijuana in training or competition? Potential benefits to athletes include reducing anxiety, settling stomachs, helping with soreness and even aiding in sleep—much like the competition-legal substances of Prozac, Pepto-Bismol, ibuprofen and Ambien. These effects are still being studied because, although it comes from a plant and has been around for thousands and thousands of years (including a 2900 BC reference to its medicinal purposes by Emperor Fu Hsi), marijuana has been closely monitored and stigmatized for so long in the U.S. that very few scientific studies have been conducted regarding its positive or negative impacts.

READ MORE: High Notes from a THC-Fueled Run

When it comes to running, the challenge is that not all races perform drug tests—and very few trail running races—and typically when they do it only covers a small portion of the elite field. While there are many more long-lasting (and illegal) performance-enhancing drugs available, cannabis might be the most accessible one available to age-group athletes thanks in part to growing legalization in the U.S.

Still, because of a lack of testing, there is no way of knowing who is using and who isn’t—even among those who are known recreational cannabis users.

“I know a lot of runners who use pot recreationally,” says professional trail runner Clare Gallagher, who recently won the CCC 100K race in France. “But the fear of being called a doper is so much greater than any possible benefits with helping boredom or alleviating swelling, that anecdotally, I’ve never heard of anyone wanting to use pot in a race.”

Definition: cannabinoid (from Dictionary.com)
Noun; any of the chemical compounds that are the active principles of marijuana

For some perspective, in addition to drugs like cocaine, Fentanyl and morphine, USADA bans alcohol (a BAC of 0.10 g/L or higher) during competitions, at least in power boating, archery and anything involving automobiles. And until 2004, caffeine was on the WADA’s list of banned and restricted substances. In fact Inger Miller, a U.S. sprinter who won a gold medal in the 200-meter dash at the 1999 IAAF World Championships, had her bronze medal from the 60m dash at the 1999 World Indoor Track Championships revoked when she tested positive for excessive levels of caffeine.

When caffeine was on the prohibited list, the threshold was 12 micrograms per milliliter of urine, equivalent to downing five or six cups of brewed coffee in the two to three hours before an event. The IOC still monitors it for abuse and the NCAA has a threshold of 15 micrograms of caffeine per milliliter for college athletes. The levels are set so as not to be punitory for those who enjoy coffee recreationally, similar to the current approach to marijuana. Miller says she had two small cups of coffee before her event and two Coca-Colas afterwards, but before her test. Coca-Cola was a sponsor of the event.

So, what’s an athlete to do? Do clean athletes need to wonder if elite runners are smoking dope for performance enhancement? Do you need to question your weekend-toking neighbor’s race times? Is smoking a joint for relaxation purposes, inhaling secondhand smoke at a concert or taking pot edibles for recovery purposes after a long run the same as using anabolic steroids, taking EPO or another substance on banned substances lists from USADA and WADA? Maybe, maybe not.

“I’m not really as worried about cannabis as I am about EPO or testosterone,” says elite trail runner Sage Canaday, a noted clean sport advocate who is a two-time U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier, a three-time champion of the Speedgoat 50K in Utah and course record-holder, and two-time champion of the Tarawera 100K in New Zealand. “No one is beating me at a big, competitive race because they’re stopping to toke up. So I don’t have a problem with it recreationally in places where it’s legal, but in competition, it is against the rules.”

Sage Canaday (pictured in the blue singlet at the June 24 Marathon du Mont Blanc in France) is a staunch clean sport advocate and says “the rules are the rules when it comes to using pot in competition,” but admits it’s probably not as worrisome as other PEDs used by some athletes in training. Photo Credit: Vincent Lescaut 

Canaday’s main clean sport fight is against known performance-enhancing drugs like EPO where people can get huge, long-lasting advantages for high-level training and racing. For those using cannabis to help curb nausea, for example, it may help and offer an unfair advantage in a long-distance trail race. But as far as potential training benefits are concerned, Canaday thinks any would be negligible.

Sponsorship is also an issue when it comes to athletes and cannabis. As the availability of legal cannabis grows, so too does the amount of money spent on marketing. A handful of trail runners have garnered sponsorships from alcohol brands, including Canaday, who is sponsored by Avery Brewing Co., and Gina Lucrezi, who is sponsored by Upslope Brewing Company. Meanwhile, Rickey Gates is sponsored by Sombra Mezcal.

Then there is Collins, who is sponsored by The Farm Dispensary in Boulder and Mary’s Medicinals, a Denver-based edible brand.

“Wanting a cannabis sponsor is no different than wanting a shoe or gel sponsor, you don’t have to pay for something you use,” Collins says.

Some wonder if that should be allowed, given that pot is considered a banned substance for competitive athletes. Earlier this year, champion trail runner Dave Mackey, also of Boulder, took issue with Collins’ sponsorship.

“The biggest issue I had specifically with Avery, was because he’s performing at an elite level and benefitting from it. He’s promoting the product and not being tested,” Mackey says. “If someone had been promoted by a steroid company, then I believe those people should be tested, especially once you are competing at a certain level, to make sure you are clean.”

The conversation prompted the American Trail Running Association (ATRA) to make a statement about where they stood on the issue.

“I created the ATRA statement to read that as long as you are legal under USADA and WADA, then it’s fine. Whatever you’re going to do that’s legal, we’re not going to judge,” says Adam Chase, President of ATRA. “But having tried cannabis on a run, I can understand how it can be a performance enhancer. I’m glad it’s a banned substance in competition.”

Ian Sharman, director of the Altra U.S. Skyrunner Series and winner of the 2017 Leadville 100, says the rules are the rules when it comes to WADA’s list of banned substances.

“There are going to be some people in races who have higher levels of cannabis in their bloodstream. Some may even use to enhance performance, but for most people it’s probably not the case,” says Sharman, 37, who lives in Bend, Oregon, where pot is legal. “Until more science is done to understand how marijuana affects runners, we will simply follow the rules and honor bans.”

Colorado-based Gallagher, who was also the 2016 winner at the Leadville 100, competes clean but uses marijuana recreationally.

“I don’t use it when I train, I don’t use it to recover from a run and I never use it with the intention it will help my running in any way. Marijuana is strictly recreational for me,” says Gallagher, 25, who thinks it’s ludicrous to put pot and EPO in the same sentence. “If we keep the stigma that we are allowed to have alcohol sponsors but not pot sponsors then we are setting ourselves back. It’s a lifestyle sponsor, just like any other lifestyle sponsor.”

With all the discussion of pot as a PED, some may wonder if they need to start checking their fellow racers for bloodshot eyes or the smell of pot. But elite runner Sage Canaday he’s not worried about losing to anyone stopping to get stoned mid-race. Photo Credit: Motiv Running

The discussion boils down to having fair and safe competitions for all athletes. EPO, which is banned in and out of competition, helps the body process oxygen, which results in an increased VO2 max level and improved endurance. Anecdotally, cannabinoids have been found to reduce anxiety and boredom, calm nausea, help maintain appetite, ease aches and pains and even aid sleep. Those are all things that are certainly beneficial for athletes, but they aren’t going to provide significant training improvements, like an increased VO2 max. That, along with the increasing legalization, is why cannabis, arguably a lesser evil, is still allowed outside of competition.

But what about altitude tents, cryotherapy, electrical stimulation and other treatments that runners swear by for training and recovery? Those are all legal, even though they can create advantages for an athlete. Should they be monitored since they aren’t readily available to everyone?

Mackey believes a line needs to be drawn somewhere. And for now, it’s drawn at pot, although he does agree it probably isn’t as serious as EPO, steroids or other PEDs.

Gallagher believes decriminalization and education are the answers.

“I don’t care if other people smoke pot because it’s none of my business. I strongly believe marijuana should be legalized. And that has nothing to with running,” says Gallagher who does not equate pot usage with doping. “It’s unconstitutional how many people among certain demographics are jailed with minor possession charges.”

In having pot sponsors, Collins wanted to be an advocate and raise awareness, giving him the chance to stand up for something he believes in and start conversations. Thankfully, he says, he’s received more positive than negative feedback, with responses ranging from: people who think it’s great because they can relate on a personal level; those who think it’s funny because for the last five decades pot has been considered a “lazy” drug; and those who are against it simply because they are against it.

“I think it’s bogus that professional runners who use pot recreationally won’t go on the record about it,” Gallagher says. “The issue of decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana is so much more important than trail running and maintaining some archaic imagine of purity. Not to mention that runners talk about alcohol so openly.”

Every athlete is different, but the accepted wisdom is that, on average, it can take about two weeks to get blood levels of cannabinoids down to WADA’s and USADA’s permitted levels. Leading up to the 2017 Western States 100, where the top 10 male and female finishers were tested for doping, including pot, Collins wanted to have zero concern about testing dirty, so he stopped using marijuana five weeks out from the race.

“It was great on different levels. My mental clarity, focus and drive shot up. From what I found, using cannabis probably hinders my ability to power through a training block,” Collins says. “I think I may have more fun with cannabis, but I’m probably not pushing as hard. Those five weeks before Western were fast, hard training miles.”

Collins on his way to winning the 2016 Ouray 100 Mile Endurance Run. Photo Credit: John Burkett

In the process of quitting cold turkey, Collins was able to prove, even if just to himself, that it isn’t addictive and he was able to stop it in a heartbeat. He realized that while he may enjoy life more with cannabis, he doesn’t need it.

So, with all the discussions and sensationalist headlines, those reading this in the 21 states where marijuana is not legal in any shape or form may be wondering how big of a deal this is in the world of running.

According to Gallagher, “It’s not a big deal, at all.”

In fact, Canaday thinks focusing on cannabinoids distracts from more pressing clean sport conversations, like those around EPO usage.

“When we get caught up in gray areas, like discussing marijuana, therapeutic use exemptions and even alcohol and caffeine, it takes focus from high-level athletes who are abusing EPO.”

As for Collins, he simply wants to keep training and racing.

“I have no problem with the rules. Even if WADA took it off the banned list for in competition, I still wouldn’t use cannabis in races,” Collins says. “The fact that I’ve never used it at 85 or 90 miles in a race, I don’t’ know what would happen. And I don’t want to waste months of training.”

[Editor’s note: We reached out to Drug Free Sport, a drug-testing and wellness education company used by organizations such as USATF, the Western States 100 and University of Colorado Boulder, to see if they’ve seen higher THC readings in their samples as a result of more widespread legalization of marijuana. They said they were unable to discuss client testing programs or data.]

Allison Pattillo

Motiv Running senior editor Allison Pattillo writes about running, health, nutrition, gear and travel from her home in Colorado. When it comes to gear, she’s a fan of tall running socks, short running skirts and wearing her hat backwards. Even with a BQ and a few podium finishes (all triathlons should be run, bike, canoe!), Allison finds more inspiration from running in beautiful places and exploring on the run instead of the numbers on a stopwatch. She looks forward to the day when she finds her ultimate running dog, which, at this point, may be more bulldog than border collie.