Despite strict doping rules that can impact the trajectory of an athlete’s future, many former and current athletes stay active with the assistance of cannabinoids.
Natural processes in every human body, such as the runner’s high, mimic and overlap with the effects of cannabis. In terms of physical fitness, the science suggesting how cannabis can benefit recovery and mental health is overwhelming.
High Times reached out to some former professional athletes who are spreading awareness about the ways that cannabinoids can help aid in the recovery process after exercise and how these compounds can promote mental health when pharmaceuticals fail.
Former NFL running-back-turned-cannabis-advocate Ricky Williams is putting all of his energy into his cannabis-related business endeavors. Why? Because pointless cannabis restrictions in sports almost turned his career upside-down.
Williams won the coveted Heisman Trophy in 1998. He boasts 10,009 rushing yards, 68 rushing touchdowns, 2,606 receiving yards, and eight receiving touchdowns. But despite his accomplishments in the NFL, he was suspended five times during his 11 seasons with the league because of cannabis—and his celebrity notoriety as a toker didn’t help.
Williams missed out on two NFL seasons in his prime because of drug tests. Cannabis is stored in body fat and can linger in the body for weeks if not months. He launched Highsman, a cannabis lifestyle brand created to empower professional and everyday athletes, in October 2021. The company’s name is a play on the Heisman Trophy.
Most recently, Williams collaborated with the popular pre-roll company Jeeter to launch a new cannabis strain called “Sticky Ricky,” but it’s not the profits he’s after. According to an announcement, 100% of the proceeds from this collaboration with Jeeter are going to Athletes for CARE (A4C) to support mental health initiatives. A4C is a nonprofit organization founded by former athletes including Williams, with a mission to assist fellow athletes with everything from mental to physical health.
Williams revealed some of the reasons he turns to cannabis to help in mental and physical recovery. Lately, he’s been into yoga, meditation, and healing, augmented with cannabis.
“Yoga is a major part of my physical routine, and when practicing, cannabis allows me to be more aware of how energy is moving in my body/mind system,” Williams said. “For example, it helps me to feel where there is flow and where there is congestion or a lack of flow.”
Like the “flow state” achieved by cross country runners and endurance sports figures, cannabis can provide a beneficial trance that brings balance.
“This connection allows me to focus my movement in ways that lead to efficiency and ease of movement, which has the added benefit of helping to prevent injuries,” Williams said.
Road racing cyclist and former Tour de France champion Floyd Landis found relief with the help of CBD and other cannabinoids. Among his many decorations, Landis originally won general classification—the main prize—at the 2006 Tour de France, in spite of suffering from osteonecrosis, a disease caused by reduced blood flow to the joints. He powered through and rebounded in stage 17 against all odds. His hip was later replaced with a metal-on-metal hip joint.
Landis then became one of the first to come clean about the widespread doping controversy involving the top endurance road racing cyclists in the world over a decade ago, losing some titles. He was subsequently portrayed by Academy Award-nominated actor Jesse Plemons in the 2015 film The Program.
“Back in 2006, I had a hip replacement as a result of injuries I sustained in bicycle racing a few years before that,” Landis told High Times, acknowledging that the benefit of medical cannabis wasn’t always accepted like it is today, especially in the world of pro sports. “Back then, it was known within small groups but it wasn’t, you know, talked about and widely debated as it is now. And so I was prescribed some narcotics along the way for dealing with pain after the surgery.”
Landis explained that opioids work well for pain—initially. But some people turn to them to forget about their problems, which can lead to full-blown addiction.
“Next thing, you know, it’s a problem in and of itself,” Landis said. “I’ve dealt with that for a couple years. And I kind of discovered marijuana a few years later, as a means to [aid] for whatever reason.”
Throughout his career, Landis didn’t smoke weed, as it wasn’t part of the endurance cycling culture. He wouldn’t discover its medical benefits until later on.
“[Cannabis] also comes with other psychological benefits,” he said. “It helps with anxiety. It helps with the things that probably people are trying to treat with narcotics.”
Organizations such as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) are slowly changing the tune on CBD, which is allowed, and expanding the limits for THC.
“Up until recently, at least, they haven’t considered testing for CBD metabolites and I don’t think they ever will,” Landis said of WADA. “They are focused on THC. And even that’s become deregulated quite a bit.”
Landis also acknowledged the similarities between the runner’s high and cannabis. The phenomenon describes the euphoria caused after a moderate exercise of 20 minutes or more. It is a natural mechanism in our bodies involving the endocannabinoid system, a cell signaling system which promotes balance when it comes to things like motivation and appetite. The experience of the runner’s high is the body feeling the rush of a cannabinoid produced internally as opposed to the cannabinoids produced in the cannabis plant.
“I think a lot of what your body naturally produces, through exercise, are very similar to some of these cannabinoids,” Landis said. “And so people often augment that with either marijuana or hemp products to kind of enhance the feeling that they get in, you know, at the end of a long run or that for hours afterwards.”
Landis explained that the endurance events he is used to are a bit more extreme, so the runner’s high is accompanied with the shock of a strenuous workout. Endurance athletes are constantly balancing their careers with the effects of exertion from long distances such as inflammation or pain and swelling in the tendons.
Throughout Landis’ career, he attracted a few familiar fans. Robin Williams was among the top followers of endurance cycling and Landis. He even gave Landis a nickname that stuck—“Mofo of the Mountain.”
“He was great,” Landis said. “He got into being a cycling fan, riding his bike a bit, just trying to stay healthy back in, during the time when Lance Armstrong [was riding]. And so he would come, you know, he would come to the Tour de France and join us on the bus after a given stage and tell jokes. And I always kind of envied him. He seemed like he was just naturally high all the time.”
Leadville, Colorado is home to some big endurance sports, such as the Leadville 100, running races, mountain bike races, and so on. In 2018, Landis launched his CBD company Floyd’s of Leadville and is currently debuting a product with CBN, CBG, THC, and CBD.
“We’re always constantly trying to refine which combinations of cannabinoids will do what,” he said.
Josiah Hesse, author of the book Runner’s High: How a Movement of Cannabis-Fueled Athletes Is Changing the Science of Sports, is among the top advocates of cannabis-propelled athleticism. Last September, Hesse spoke to ABC News correspondent Linsey Davis to discuss his book and explain how the runner’s high is linked to the high from cannabis—exposing the phenomenon to a much bigger audience.
“The two—neurologically speaking—are nearly identical,” Hesse told High Times. “What goes on in the brain, when we have the natural runner’s high, as mentioned, is an endogenous cannabinoid. Most researchers point to anandamide, which comes from the Sanskrit word for bliss.”
Hesse explained that humans have engaged with the high associated with an endocannabinoid boost for millions of years. The body’s production of endogenous, or internal cannabinoids like anandamide, reduce pain and increase things like joy and the appreciation of nature. We also get those effects from phytocannabinoids in cannabis. As explained in Hesse’s book, neurologists have data to suggest that THC increases the production of anandamide, so it is believed to get you to the runner’s high more quickly and efficiently.
“The percentage of people who are exercising—who knows what percentage of them enjoy it,” Hesse said. “Throughout the process of promoting this book effort, so many people talked about how much they hate exercise, but that they do it anyway. So it’s an even smaller fraction who are doing it as a playful, enjoyable, recreational activity. So what cannabis can do is induce that natural evolutionary reward system for enjoying exercise quicker and faster.”
Research indicates that you need to get over a certain hump to achieve the runner’s high.
“It’s typically running at around 70% heart rate for 20 to 30 minutes,” Hesse said. “Most people don’t get there—they either go too fast or they go too slow and never get there. Either way, most people hate getting to that point.”
Hesse said a moderate dose of cannabis can be a way for people to achieve that euphoria faster and more efficiently. He said that he personally never had any interest in sports, and very little interest in exercise—that is, until he started prepping with cannabis edibles.
In sports organizations like the NBA, cannabis use is everywhere. Former Chicago Bulls No. 2 pick Jay Williams told Jade Sciponi of FoxBusiness in 2016 that 75% to 80% of NBA players smoke cannabis.
“I found out that [cannabis use in sports] is so popular, yet so under-reported,” Hesse said. “I couldn’t ignore it as a journalist.”
The World Anti-Doping Agency removed CBD from the list of banned substances in 2018 and raised the threshold of THC up to 120 nanograms, which allows athletes to utilize cannabis during training and then stop a week or two before competition. THC metabolites are typically out of the system by then, but the Mayo Clinic cites that they can be detected for as long as 46 days after consumption.
“I don’t think it qualifies as a performance-enhancing drug in the way that we think we understand that term, which is in relation to competition,” Hesse said.
The purpose of strict doping rules is to abate the use of banned substances like steroids, which can make competitive situations unfair.
“That’s not going to happen with cannabis. It’s not going to make your muscles stronger. It’s not going to make your blood more efficient,” Hesse said.
Entrepreneur, founder, advocate, and former NFL star Eben Britton’s book, The Eben Flow, is a compendium of experiences and insights exploring his transformation from pro sports to his recent focus on wellness. It’s a fascinating read incorporating various tracts of health practices from all corners of the world and a testament to Britton’s devotion to health and well-being.
Trauma and the NFL are synonymous, given the brutal nature of the sport. After six seasons of professional football, four years with the Jacksonville Jaguars followed by two with the Chicago Bears, Britton was “physically, mentally, and emotionally destroyed.”
Fortunately, the alternative ways cannabis can help played a major part in his mental and physical recovery.
“My relationship with cannabis has evolved greatly over the last few years,” Britton told High Times. “While it is still an integral part of my daily routine I use it in a much different capacity today compared to how I used it during my career.”
Britton is also currently focused on practices involving yoga, as well as breathing and meditation. Ayurvedic medicine is also part of the new ways Britton is incorporating alternative therapies.
“In Ayurveda, cannabis is known as a ‘trauma reducer’ and it was exactly this during my NFL career,” Britton said. “When I was taking on significant physical damage, as well as emotional and mental stress, cannabis was my saving grace. Something I could come home to that would quell my rattled nervous system, decompress my mental and physical body, allowing me to rest and recover.”
Britton admitted in 2016 that he consumed weed before three NFL games he played in. Finding alternatives to prescription drugs is a big part of the message he wants to convey in his book.
“Over the last five years, as I have healed many of the wounds that plagued me during my career, cannabis has taken on a much different role,” Britton said. “I primarily use CBD for mental clarity and inflammation, consuming much less THC than I ever have, saving my whole-plant cannabis consumption for after a sunset to prepare me for a restful night of sleep.”
After retiring from professional sports, Britton co-hosted over 50 episodes of the Hotboxin’ with Mike Tyson podcast before producing and hosting his own podcast, The Eben Flow. He also co-founded the community-based athlete advocacy association Athletes for CARE, and sits on the advisory board of Wake Network, a psilocybin research and development company. Last year, Britton joined the Revenant MJ cannabis brand in California founded by NFL brethren Kyle Turley and Jim McMahol, as partner and spokesperson.