Psychedelics as a Performance-Enhancer in Athletics

A look into the cognitive-enhancing effects of psychedelics in sports.

May 08, 2019 -

It’s a game of inches in the world of elite level, high stakes sports and many are willing to trade sportsmanship for glory. When the topic of Performance-Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) appears in the media, the discussion usually focuses on cases such as the state-sponsored doping program carried out by the Russian Olympic Committee, as depicted in the documentary Icarus, or the monumental fall from grace of former Tour de France “winner,” Lance Armstrong.

Erythropoietin (EPO) is probably the most well-known PED, due to its association with Lance Armstrong. EPO increases red blood cell (RBC) count in the body. Increasing RBC results in a higher rate of oxygen delivery from the lungs to the muscles, improving an athlete’s endurance and aerobic capacity (VO2 max).1 PEDs of past and present are formulated to give athletes an unfair psychical edge over their competitors; could PEDs of the future endow athletes with a cognitive advantage?

New Perceptions

The terms psychedelics and PEDs are rarely associated with one another. In fact, for many years the conventional wisdom was that psychedelic usage “fries your brain,” thanks in part to public service campaigns aired in the eighties and nineties. However, recent studies into the benefits “microdosing” psychedelics suggest that the molecules may act as cognitive enhancers.

Microdosing is a process whereby individuals take psychedelics at doses lower than the threshold for a fully immersive psychedelic experience. These doses can be as low as 1/20th of a “normal” recreational dose. Thanks to the resurgence of interest and support for psychedelic research,2 academic institutions have begun to study the effects of microdosing. In a recent study conducted by the University of Leiden, researchers observed that microdosing psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms”) promoted cognitive flexibility, in turn increasing divergent and convergent thinking.3 How could this increase in cognitive flexibility endow an athlete with a competitive edge in sports?

Athlete’s Anecdotes

In an article written for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelics Studies (MAPS), athlete and author James Oroc discusses the prevalence of psychedelics usage at “psycholytic” doses among winter sports athletes. The term psycholytic dose refers to low, sub-threshold doses. Oroc is, in essence, describing microdosing. “Virtually all athletes who learn to use LSD at psycholytic dosages believe that the use of these compounds improves both their stamina and ability,” writes Oroc. Many of the athletes report improvements in balance, reflexes and concentration, along with the ability to overcome fatigue and altitude sickness. Interestingly, they liken the experience to being in a “flow-state” or being “in the zone.” Users report that time appears to slow down and that they become capable of “instantaneous feats of non-thinking coordination.”

Former Pittsburgh Pirate’s pitcher, Dock Ellis, claimed to have had experienced a psychedelic-induced flow state. On June 12th, 1970, Ellis threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres while under the influence of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Ellis commented, “I can only remember bits and pieces of the game. I was psyched. I had a feeling of euphoria. I was zeroed in on the [catcher’s] glove.”

Another area of intrigue is the recent rise in popularity of marijuana usage in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). While marijuana does not fall under the category of psychedelics, it is a psychotropic drug (a drug capable of affecting the mind, emotions, and behaviour). BJJ players report similar improvements in cognitive flexibility when they use marijuana before competing. BJJ is a highly cerebral martial art that focuses on grappling with particular emphasis on ground fighting. Practitioners and advocates of the sport often liken it to a game of chess rather than a street brawl. In an article written for BJJ world, journalist and BJJ practitioner Ognen Dzabirski writes, “Another thing weed and Jiu-Jitsu have in common is flow. Being high and rolling (sparring) are tightly related to the flow state. Weed helps your mind get into that “flow zone” where your rolls are seamless and just keep on going. It is Jiu-Jitsu at it’s finest and weed is a great way to find your flow.”

Regulatory Questions

At present, psychedelics do not appear on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list of banned substances. The absence of psychedelics from the list presumably has to do with the lack of robust, scientific studies into their effects as PEDs. Interestingly, cannabinoids such as D9-tetrahydrocannabinol (the psychoactive constituent of the cannabis plant) are prohibited. According to the United State’s Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) website, cannabinoids are viewed as a performance-enhancers since they can cause “muscle relaxation and reduce pain during post-workout recovery. It can also decrease anxiety and tension, resulting in better sports performance under pressure. Also, cannabis can increase focus and risk-taking behaviours, allowing athletes to forget bad falls or previous trauma in sport, and push themselves past those fears in competition.” This statement correlates with the anecdotal reports given by athletes on the performance-enhancing effects of psychedelics. One could postulate that if the athlete’s claims regarding the benefits of psychedelics are eventually verified by scientific studies, they may be viewed by doping agencies in the same light as cannabinoids.

Currently, WADA may grant a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) to athletes using medical marijuana while competing. TUEs are decided on a case by case basis and are usually only given to athletes using medical marijuana to treat quite severe conditions, i.e. in those suffering from neuropathic pain. In recent years, there has been increased interest in research concerning the therapeutic effects of psychedelics in a multitude of affective disorders.4 It may be the case that athletes could apply for TUE while using psychedelics, should scientists elucidate the therapeutic benefits of these drugs.

Summary

A caveat to this article is that most, if not all, of the evidence provided, is anecdotal. Very little peer-reviewed, robust scientific literature exists on the topic of psychedelics as PEDs. The majority of discussion concerning this theme takes place on internet forums and message boards, such as Reddit. Understandably, the majority of research efforts are focused on the elucidation of the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. While the Leiden University study mentioned at the beginning of this article has its limitations (i.e. absence of placebo group, the reliance on online questionnaires), it serves as a starting point for a more rigorous investigation into the subject matter. In the coming decades, the world may see a new breed of athlete, one who possesses a cognitive edge over their competition, thanks to mechanisms of action of psychedelics PEDs.