Runners high: The use of drugs in ultra-running

Words: Conan Marshall

The recent decade has seen the evolution of ultra-running from a niche activity practiced by free spirits to a more established sport now taken seriously by corporate brands. The rise of ultra-running leads to questions about the scale of drug-use in competition and recovery.


Use of PEDs in ultra-marathons:

The commercialization of the ultra-running world means a larger spotlight on the drug habits of ultra-runners. A growing number of ultra-marathons now have drug tests for the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in response to increased competition and rewards becoming more lucrative.

The Western States 100 introduced doping tests a few years ago to ensure the integrity of the race. This has resulted in a “zero tolerance policy” regarding the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).

In the past elite runners have faced disqualification from The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc due to doping. This leads to the question: how many ultra-runners use PEDs?

Until now there have been no major peer reviewed journals investigating the use of PEDs by ultra-runners. The recent study by University of Utah involved an online survey asking runners (who remained anonymous) what type of PEDs they had taken and what their attitude towards the use of drugs were. The survey was dispensed through the Western States Endurance Run Facebook pages.

Over 600 runners responded. The results of the study were as followed: 8.4% of runners reported using PEDs during competition or training. The use of cannabinoids, narcotics and stimulants were the most frequently reported. Interestingly, 18.5% admitted to personally knowing another runner who had used PEDs.

Nearly 20% admitted to using PEDs for medical reasons and 18.7% reported the use of drugs socially. It would be safe to assume here that they’re not talking about anabolic steroids, rather medical and recreational cannabis.

In a nutshell, yes PEDs are being used by a number of ultra-runners. This study has opened the conversation up for further conversation and research but the exact number of ultra-runners who use PEDs remains largely unknown.

The potential of CBD:

With Canada recently becoming the first G8 nation to legalize recreational cannabis, marijuana has become less demonized by mainstream culture, making way for a debate on the potentials of its use.

There’s a well-known perception of ultra-runners using cannabis, especially CBD (cannabidiol) to aid pain and recovery, especially in the US. Many in the endurance world have welcomed the trend of using CBD oil. Recent times have seen the growth of the CannAthlete movement in California and Colorado, where medical marijuana has been legal for a number of years by State law.

The question shouldn’t be, does marijuana make you a better runner? Rather, what are the potential uses of CBD in aiding recovery?

Ultra-distance runners can experience swelling after a prolonged run. This can be due to a low sodium level in the blood. A wave of research is being conducted on the potential benefits of CBD in helping post-race inflammation. According to Gregory Gerdeman, an assistant professor of biology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, “certain chemicals within marijuana have anti-inflammatory effects”.

There is more and more anecdotal evidence of runners incorporating marijuana into their routines to aid post-race swelling and pains. CBD is non-psychoactive. Many fitness programs, coaches and writers are quick to highlight the benefits of CBD in treating muscle spasms and other common issues for athletes. It’s commonly used for its proposed analgesic properties (in simpler terms, pain relief). Despite these claims, what’s next for CBD depends on research.

The World Anti-doping Agency’s message is clear: the use of any PED before or during a sporting event (including listed ultra-marathons) is forbidden. Though in January 2018, CBD was removed from the List of Prohibited Substances.