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Can marijuana help make us better athletes?

With marijuana legalization set to hit Canada next year, it’s only a matter of time before pot-friendly gyms such as Power Plant begin to pop up across the country.

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A lot has changed since Ross Rebagliati's legendary performance at the 1998 Winter Olympics. After winning gold for Canada in the first-ever Olympic snowboarding event, the Vancouver-born athlete was then stripped of his medal when he tested positive for THC, the psychoactive element in marijuana. An appeal resulted in the return of Rebagliati's medal (marijuana wasn't on the banned-substance list at the time), while people around the world wondered how someone even stays upright while flying down a mountain on a thin wooden plank stoned.

Fast-forward to today and the idea of pot as a performance enhancer is no longer a joke. Superstars such as MMA's Nick and Nate Diaz, NFL legend Randy Moss and two-time Cy Young-winner and World Series champion Tim Lincecum are but a few of the athletes who've reached the pinnacle of their respective sports while indulging in marijuana, according to media reports on ESPN and elsewhere. Did smoking dope give them an edge on their competition? One thing's for sure – it didn't turn them into proverbial pothead slackers.

The weed-as-fitness-aid revolution also took a big step forward when Power Plant Fitness – "the world's first cannabis gym" – opened in California earlier this year. Co-founded by the patron saint of pothead athletes, former NFL and CFL running back Ricky Williams, Power Plant allows its members to "consume cannabis at the gym before or after working out." The gym's website also claims that its trainers "have a full knowledge base of both physiology and training as well as focused education in all aspects of how to integrate cannabis into one's daily routine of wellness."

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Now, the question beckons: How exactly does smoking (or eating) weed make one perform better? Doesn't it just make you sleepy and paranoid?

Yes and no.

Generally speaking, performance-enhancing drugs fall into two categories: performance aids that increase an athlete's ability during competition or training, and recovery aids that assist in the healing process after the fact. Marijuana sits squarely between the two ends of the spectrum. The effect largely depends upon the strain, or breed, of the plant.

Sativa strains act as mild stimulants, delivering an uplifting and energizing high that's well-suited as a preworkout supplement. Indica strains do the opposite – the effect is more relaxing – sedating, even – making it ideal for recovery. Hybrid strains offer the best of both worlds, although one strain is often more dominant than the other.

Devotees such as the aforementioned Diaz brothers and comedian/commentator/podcaster Joe Rogan claim that a quick spliff before training increases sensory awareness, allowing them to tap into the mind-muscle connection, making their movements more efficient. Marijuana can have a focusing effect, too, making it easier to get through workouts without distractions. Those are the big benefits in terms of performance.

As a recovery aid, marijuana's reputation speaks for itself. It can decrease stress, soothe minor aches and pains and, if you're trying to gain weight, well, few substances stimulate the appetite better (just make sure those stoner snacks are of the healthy variety).

Of course, as with all drugs (pharmaceutical or otherwise), there are some definite downsides to pot. Smoking any substance can have a negative impact on the lungs. Marijuana is no exception, even though it's far less dangerous than cigarettes. Some studies suggest that the sleep induced by marijuana is less beneficial due to the drug's disrupting effect on the REM state of the sleep cycle; it's in the REM state that growth hormone is released, and growth hormone is the magic bullet for muscle growth. And, yes, being high does have a tendency to dampen one's motivation to do anything other than watch sci-fi flicks and debate conspiracy theories.

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With marijuana legalization set to hit Canada next year, it's only a matter of time before pot-friendly gyms such as Power Plant begin to pop up across the country. The idea may seem like a gimmick, but then again, the fitness industry was built on gimmicks. If a few tokes is what it takes to get people off their butts and into the gym, then so be it. Just remember, nothing takes the place of hard training and healthy eating.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA. You can follow him on Twitter @mrpaullandini.

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