Runner’s High Gets New Meaning

Runner's High Gets New Meaning

In his new book, author Josiah Hesse examines what he says is the open secret of marijuana use among professional and amateur athletes.

Photo: Getty Images

For people who find the runner’s high elusive, a new book offers this suggestion: Run high.

Josiah Hesse, a runner and author of “Runner’s High: How a Movement of Cannabis-Fueled Athletes Is Changing the Science of Sports,” argues that more professional and amateur athletes than ever before are working out stoned.

Runner's High Gets New Meaning

The 39-year-old journalist contends that pot makes for a more focused and relaxed athlete, creating a positive-feedback loop around exercise that can lead to improved performance.

Mr. Hesse spent more than four years interviewing dozens of professional athletes, scientists, doctors and other experts about what he calls the “open secret” of cannabis-fueled fitness. His book arrives Tuesday from publisher G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Runners who have tried everything from jogging barefoot to chugging beet juice might recoil at the idea that pot brownies could help them notch their next personal record. Over the years, scientists have disputed whether cannabis is a performance-enhancing drug, with some arguing that it has the opposite effect.

The thorny subject of athletes and pot took center stage this summer before the Tokyo Olympics, when Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from the U.S. track and field team after testing positive for the banned substance.

Mr. Hesse believes a future industry of cannabis athletics is coming. He points to rising legalization of the drug for recreational use and the boom in products made with CBD, which is derived from cannabis, for sports recovery.

Runner's High Gets New Meaning

Josiah Hesse contends that pot creates a positive-feedback loop around exercise that can lead to improved performance.

Photo: Glenn Ross

The author discourages readers from putting themselves in legal jeopardy by purchasing black-market cannabis. He lives in Denver, where marijuana is legal. The idea of running stoned came to Mr. Hesse nearly a decade ago when he learned that some bodybuilders were using weed. If it worked in weightlifting, he thought, why not running?

Here, an edited and condensed interview.

You loved running stoned, then you realized you weren’t alone.

It seems like most peoples’ journey through this is they did it themselves and never really discussed it, because the sports world at times can be conservative, and this is taboo and at times illegal. This has become somewhat of an open secret in the sports world that so many people are using cannabis in their training and in their recovery.

How does pot affect athletes’ mental state while exercising?

If you talk to an evolutionary biologist, the joy from exercise is part of our rewards system, the same as salt, fat, sugar or sleep or sex. A lot of people aren’t experiencing a lot of joy from exercise. People think they don’t belong in a gym, they’re ugly, they’re stupid, they failed last time so they’re going to fail again. That’s what they remember from working out. Cannabis can shut out that excess chatter.

Why focus on running in particular?

Any endurance runner will tell you, there’s a kind of hypnotic, meditative state you get into after a certain distance, there’s a rhythm and deep focus on your body. That’s something that cannabis also provides and harmonizes with very well. What I hear from athletes is that it gives them a dialed-in mind-set where everything else disappears. They often can enter a more playful, present state.

What about getting lost?

If you’re going to run with cannabis, do it in places you’ve run before. Early on, trails were new to me, and the signs could be confusing. I loved running on trails so much and it was so much fun, and 10 miles later I had no idea where I was, I didn’t have any water, I didn’t bring any food.

Many professional sports organizations ban the use of marijuana in competition. Should they?

Cannabis is not going to do anything that’s taking you beyond your natural limits. It’s not going to swell your body beyond its genetic limitations. It’s not going to make your heart stronger than it organically is going to be. That said, there are plenty of endurance runners who are going out for days at a time. So much of that is mental. It is wrestling with pain, exhaustion, your own doubt. If cannabis strips that away, that’s pretty important.

How did publishers react to your book proposal?

There are people who were angry at my pitch, angry at my agent for sending it to them. At Putnam, they said, “We don’t fully understand all of this but we are trusting you when it comes to understanding cultural shifts around cannabis.”

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

Do you think cannabis can lead to better athletic performance? Join the conversation below.

I recently ran in the park and wondered, “How many people here are stoned?”

When a researcher from University of Colorado Boulder did a survey about exercise habits—this was in legalized states—80% of respondents said they used cannabis before, during or after their fitness routine.

Have you been high during our conversation?

I have not. I’m not terribly sharp, at least in terms of wit or recalling specific details, when I’m high. Good ideas will come, but the execution of those ideas usually is saved for more sober moments.

Write to Ellen Gamerman at ellen.gamerman@wsj.com

 

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