I write a lot about how important it is to learn to relax if you want to maximize your recovery. You now the spiel by now: lifting is stressful, you can only handle so much stress (no matter where it comes from), so if you’re not purposefully making time to relax outside of the gym, then you’re setting yourself up for over-reaching, under-recovering, and sub-optimal results inside it.
Unfortunately, for many people, that’s easier said than done. I include myself in that group: I’m generally a pretty high-stress person, and even if I set aside the time to relax, it’s still very difficult for my mind and body to let go of whatever’s got me wound up in the first place. That’s by no means unusual, especially for competitive lifters, who tend to be very aggressive, accomplishment-oriented individuals.
Try to explain that to the average person, and they’ll probably tell you to relax by kicking back with a brewski or two. Tell a doctor in California or Colorado, and you might end up with a prescription for medical marijuana. In fact, "recreational" substances have traditionally been seen as an easy solution for this common problem, just like caffeine is often seen as an easy solution for a bad’s night sleep.
The problem is that, if you’re a lifter, alcohol and marijuana can potentially hurt your progress. It’s easy to see how: just imagine lifting while you’re super baked or blackout drunk — you won’t have the motivation, coordination, or energy necessary, and chances are, you won’t feel the greatest the next day, either. But — and I’m repeating myself again here — extremes are just that. To be a great lifter (and a happy person), you have to strive for balance, and (legal!) recreational drugs like alcohol and marijuana are no exception.
What Does the Science Show?
Let me be clear here: in general, I don’t but a lot of faith in “what the science says.” That’s not because I’m distrustful of the scientific method or the research process — in fact, just the opposite. I think I understand it, especially the publishing aspect, better than most. And because of that, I know that:
- Researchers are under extreme pressure to show something from their studies. Studies are difficult to fund, no matter what the topic, and take a long time and a lot of manpower. You simply can’t afford to “waste” all those resources.
- Even so, the majority of scientific data are extraordinarily reliable. The problem context. When you read a paper published in a journal, and try to apply that to anythingoutside of a research setting, you’re distorting what the study itself actually shows. And nowadays, that method of “scientific” reasoning has become extraordinarily popular.
So, I won’t be referring to any studies here. I’m going to focus on what I, personally, think is more compelling: weighing the practical pros and cons of alcohol, marijuana, and other recreational substances.
Alcohol is probably the most readily available, socially acceptable, and arguably most effective of any of the substances discussed in this article. It’s also pretty ubiquitous, and for many lifters, the problem isn’t deciding whether to drink at all — it’s trying to avoid drinking too much. That’s a question for someone other than myself; I personally do not drink at all. But I made that decision for personal reasons, not performance ones.
The fact is, alcohol in small quantities (1-2 drinks a few times a week) can have some pretty substantial benefits in terms of relaxation, sleep, and even cardiovascular health. It’s also a good excuse to connect with friends, which has a ton of benefits all by itself. Of course, alcohol also has a pretty high caloric content, especially if you’re drinking beer; and you’ll need to account for that in your diet if you’re concerned about your weight for any reason.
Marijuana obviously isn’t as socially acceptable as alcohol, but that’s changing — and so is its legality. More and more places are legalizing marijuana, which essentially eliminates a huge number of risks associated with marijuana use in the first place. (For the record, I don’t recommend anything illegal, so make sure you’re enjoying yourself responsibility.)
Like alcohol, when consumed in reasonable amounts, I believe that marijuana can be beneficial to many lifters. Again, it’ll improve relaxation and sleep. It can also be very helpful in terms of pain management, which — if you’re able to distinguish between whether you’re hurt or injured — can be absolutely invaluable, especially during harder phases of training.
And, like alcohol, marijuana’s drawbacks generally concern diet and body composition. It’s not that smoking too much will make you fat — but it could very well decrease your motivation to stay on your diet, and increase your motivation to down an entire box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. On the other hand, if you don’t get the munchies too badly, marijuana can be a useful tool to help increase your appetite if you’re struggling to gain weight.
A discussion of all the different substances used for stress relief could go on forever, but I do want to touch on a few in particular, just briefly.
Kratom use is a relatively new fad among lifters, but it can be pretty useful in terms of both relaxation and pain management (in larger doses) and can provide a moderate energy boost (in smaller quantities). Kratom has some risks associated with it, and it’s important to be aware of those. I personally have tried kratom and not noticed any significant benefits.
Tobacco (or, more generally, nicotine) can be useful in terms of relaxation, energy, and appetite management. The drawbacks (primarily impaired cardiovascular health and risk of addiction) are pretty well known. Personally, I think tobacco is best avoided altogether.
NSAIDs have gotten a bad rap as “gains killers,” as some research suggests that their use might impair muscle growth and recovery after lifting. But I think this is pretty stupid. If you’ve got minor joint pain or inflammation that’s limiting your ability to train hard, then the benefits of using NSAIDs to deal with that potentially major issue are going to far outweigh the possibility of a small decrease in recovery or growth. I am a strong proponent of moderate NSAID use when necessary.
Finding the Balance
Too much of these substances is too much. If you’re getting stoned all day, every day, or getting drunk every night, or abusing painkillers, you’re not using marijuana and alcohol as tools for anything other than appeasing your own addictions. That’s obviously not healthy or productive.
If you’re smoking a joint a couple times a week to help unwind and make sure you get some quality sleep the night before a heavy training session, or if you have a beer with your buddies while watching Monday Night Football to help yourself relax after one, that’s probably a good thing. Any possible negative consequences (like a decrease in testosterone or increase in bodyfat) are going to be more than offset by all the positives, which might be hormonal (e.g., decreased cortisol), mental (decreased feelings of anxiety) or social. In other words, those positives will improve your performance more than the negatives will detract from it — so you’re better off.
The question, of course, is all about that (admittedly significant) gray area between “enough” and “too much.” That’s a question only you can answer. But here’s my best advice to help you:
Don’t invent problems that don’t exist.
If you want to go out and have a drink or two, or smoke, go for it — and don’t stress over it unless you notice a sustained decrease in progress. At that point, you’ll want to take a closer look at whether you’re overdoing the recreational activity, and possibly cut back. Until then, enjoy yourself.
And hey — if you've got a little champagne on hand and want to relax and celebrate something, you can celebrate the new holiday bundle here at phdeadlift.com. For a limited time, you can save $100 on all my powerlifting and powerbuilding programs by clicking here. Happy holidays!