What we know about cannabis and sports performance

Hint: it’s not much

What we know about cannabis and sports performance

With the legalization of cannabis in Canada in October 2018, there is a growing interest in its effect on cognition, mood, and daily activities. Many people use cannabis recreationally, and it is often used as a pain medication as well.

The two primary cannabinoids found in cannabis are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), which are used for recreational and medical purposes. THC has gained more traction due to its intoxicating effects induced by its ability to activate cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2. This activation creates a strong sense of pleasure, and allows users to feel sensations more vividly. CBD can be used for treating epilepsy, inflammation, anxiety, and psychotic episodes.

So, we know a bit about how cannabis works recreationally and medically, but how about in other contexts? Surprisingly enough, there has been limited research on cannabis and sport performance.

University of Toronto systematic review

A U of T-affiliated systematic review published in Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach analyzed the current literature on cannabis use and sport performance. The three aims of the study were to look for current regulations around cannabis and sport, the epidemiology of cannabis use in athletes, and its effect on sport performance and recovery. The study included a total of 37 articles.

The studies used included individuals between the ages of 13–48, from high school to high-level athletes.

Current regulations

There is a lot of variability in cannabis regulations, depending on the sport, some only prohibit cannabis use during competitions while others prohibit cannabis even during training. Also, the majority of the regulations focus on THC rather than CBD, and there seems to be a wider acceptance of CBD use in sports.

There is also a lack of sufficient research on cannabis and sport performance to determine whether the use of cannabis can be considered “doping.” In order for a substance to classify as a doping substance, it needs to have the potential to enhance performance, violate the spirit of the sport, or impose significant health risks to the athlete.

“Athletes just need to be a little bit careful in terms of their consumption of what they perceived to be legal, which is CBD… they need to be mindful that it may contain trace amounts of THC, which may ultimately result in a positive test if they were ever tested in competition that’s probably the biggest thing,” Timothy Leroux, Assistant Professor in the Department of Surgery and one of the study’s co-authors, told The Varsity.

Epidemiology of cannabis use in athletes

Of the athletes studied, 23.4 per cent reported using cannabis within the past year. This finding may seem high, however cannabis use in athletes is still lower than the rate of a cohort of similarly aged individuals in the American general public, which was 31.9 per cent.

These numbers may also be underreported, since these are the self-reported numbers, and there is still stigma regarding cannabis use despite its legalization. However, this number is similar to the reported 24.7 per cent of athletes who reportedly used cannabis according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) through its Student-Athlete Drug Use Survey.

Sport performance and recovery

There were four studies surveyed on the impact of cannabis on sport performance. Two of these studies showed a negative effect and two found no effect.

One study found that THC has an impact on leg fatigue in participants who consumed cannabis 17 minutes prior to engaging in sport. It is also essential to note that there were no other studies that reported benefits for cannabis use specific to sport performance. There is no data on its effect on recovery from injuries, however it may improve overall fatigue and enhance pain management, even for nerve pain related to the spinal cord and tight muscles. A potential correlation has also been found between THC use and survival after a traumatic brain injury.

Future directions

The current research for the effect of cannabis on sport performance is lacking. The dosage, potency, and effects of cannabis need to be determined in other to form the relevant regulations around sport. An interesting direction is research on cannabis and concussions. As students, the benefits of the use of cannabis are not contraindicated by this paper, however due to the limited research on the short- and long-term effects, it is advised that student athletes veer toward the side of caution when using cannabis while competing athletically.

“We need to get everyone together at the same table on some bigger stage to try to really harmonize the regulations and rules so that they’re very clear,” Leroux concluded.

Madeleine Kelly on running her way to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Varsity Blues alum and National Champion on her recipe for steady success

Madeleine Kelly on running her way to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Lounging on her sofa with a bowl of salad in hand, Madeleine Kelly, former Varsity Blues mid-distance runner, stretches her legs and winces. She’s sore after a long day of training.

No longer running for the Varsity Blues, Kelly has new goals in mind to work toward: namely, the Olympics. “I’m training for cross country with the Varsity Blues and will have an indoor season,” Kelly clarifies, but it is clear that she is hungry for more.

Kelly found her stride while running at U of T. “I met my coach through the Varsity Blues — actually I met him in high school when I was 16. I’ve [ran] with him ever since, and I still do, so I’ve known him for eight years.”

Meshing well with Coach Terry Radchenko and the support system of friends and teammates that she amassed over her years studying at U of T, Kelly decided to stay in Toronto and run with the U of T Track Club.

She felt that the familiarity and camaraderie of the club would lead her to success: “[Terry Radchenko] is part of the reason I chose to go to U of T, and why I stayed to run for the U of T Track Club.”

The decision to stick around paid off. In late July, at the Canadian Track and Field Championships in Montréal, Kelly defeated favourite Melissa Bishop-Nriagu and defending champion Lindsey Butterworth in the 800-metre event to secure her first national title. “It was one of the most memorable days of my life,” she chuckled. She was undoubtedly the underdog: “I just had a really good last 100 metres, and won by the skin of my teeth. It wasn’t even on my radar to win this race.”

But make no mistake: this win is just the beginning for Kelly. When asked what her sights are set on next, she didn’t hesitate: “Going into this year, I wanted to make the Olympics, and I still do.” Instead of inflating her ego or allowing her to rest on her laurels, her recent win has stoked her competitive fire and fueled her drive for bigger wins. She’s using the recipe that led her to success to orient herself for wins at future races. “I de-stressed that day, and felt pretty good. I went shopping with my sisters, ate some food, watched some Real Housewives, and went to the track.”

Kelly is also quick to credit her steady success to her support system. “A bunch of people were there to watch, which was very nice, like my family, my boyfriend, and my teammates. And there were a bunch of people watching at home.” With a goal within reach and a group of people to keep her focused, it’s no wonder that she’s so confident for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

She may not have Bishop-Nriagu’s media attention, but Kelly doesn’t need it. She’s steadily working her way to the tantalizingly-close standard time for the Canadian Olympic team, and she’s not letting any distractions get in her way.

Watch out for Madeleine Kelly — she may very well be on your TV screens next year. “It’s not a guarantee,” she says, “but I’ve got a chance. I’ve got a real chance.”

Opinion: The state of women’s sports today

From college teams to the big leagues, misogyny still exists

Opinion: The state of women’s sports today

Vicky Sunohara has lived the life that many athletes can only dream of. During her illustrious  career she won Olympic gold twice and she won the International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Championship seven times. She has remained engaged in her sport since her retirement in 2008 through mentorship programs and as the current head coach of U of T’s Varsity Blues women’s hockey team. 

However, throughout her years of experience in hockey, Sunohara has noticed a glass ceiling for women players. “The national team… university athletes, they put in just as much time and effort as our male counterparts, but there’s not that opportunity to make money,” Sunohara said in an interview with The Varsity. 

Sunohara is not the first woman athlete to feel undercut in her sport. It was only during the ‘60s and ‘70s that women in North America began to gain equal opportunity in athletics. However, even after the doors to sports clubs and societies opened for both genders, the public still struggled to allow women to participate in ‘manlier’ sports, or even portray them separately from their sexuality in the news and other media. Carling Bassett, for example, one of the best tennis players in Canada’s history, faced continuous sexual objectification throughout her career in the ‘80s, with interviewers prioritizing questions about her preference in boys over the documentation of her impressive stats.

Needless to say, women’s sports have historically been underappreciated and overlooked, in every country and at every level.

Recently, however, the tides seem to be turning. Nike released a viral ad campaign in February that celebrated women athletes in every stage of life and ability. In July, the US women’s soccer team won its fourth FIFA Women’s World Cup. And the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has increased the number of women in IOC Commissions by 98 per cent since 2013. It seems that there are more opportunities than ever for women in athletics.

But many argue that these campaigns and perceived progress are masking and oversimplifying an issue that runs deep within all levels of sport. The lauded Nike campaign, for example, was soured when a New York Times op-ed revealed that the company reduced pay for their sponsored athletes who were pregnant. 

The US women’s soccer team gets paid less than their male counterparts, despite winning more games and generating more earnings. The 98 per cent increase of women in IOC Commissions still accounts for less than half of their total members. And just this past May, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League disbanded after 12 seasons, due to an “economically unsustainable” business model. 

All of these little side-stories and road blocks undercut the greatness of these women’s feats of athleticism, and pervade all levels and types of sport. What does it mean for the prospects of aspiring women athletes around the world, including at U of T, when their experience of sport is riddled with misogynist connotations and low expectations of success and ability? If people aren’t viewing your athleticism as elite, can your passion be a viable career option, or are women being forced out of high-performance athletics because of the public’s outdated and misguided beliefs about the nature of women’s sport?  

Sunohara, among many other professionals, thinks that something has to be done. “I think that the players are doing the right thing,” she continued. “On the ice they’re trying. They’re looking for the best — the best training, the best coaching… But you know for the big picture — for a professional league, a sustainable league, it really is hard to say exactly what it’s going to look like.” 

These systemically-perpetuated notions also actively jeopardize the future careers of student athletes, including our own Varsity Blues. And it’s not societal attitudes alone that prevent women athletes from competing on equal ground; it’s the actual economic structures that was built upon such misguided ideas. In US universities in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Division I, for example, women’s teams regularly receive just 41.4 per cent of the money spent on salaries for head coaches, 36.4 per cent to fund recruitment initiatives, and 39.6 per cent of the total budget to fund athletic expenses. These limited resources present a challenge for the growth of women’s sport within schools, and hence for the success of the athletes after graduation. 

So what’s the solution? For the US women’s soccer team, it’s a lawsuit for equal pay. For Nike-sponsored athletes like Olympic mid-distance American runner Alysia Montaño, it’s speaking up to the media about unjust practices. In every case, it seems to be exposure of the misogynistic underbelly of organized sport through increased coverage and communication. Athletes are starting to raise their voices against the systemic misogyny, and audiences need to amplify their calls to action through public support of the cause. 

Audiences also need to be explicit in their interest in women’s professional sports in order to increase its economic success. University of Southern California and Purdue researchers conducted a 20-year study that shows that women’s sports coverage pales in comparison to men’s, and is even on the downturn. This means that current women athletes will get paid less, and future women athletes may find it harder to identify idols or see a viable athletic career for themselves. We, the public, can create change simply by choosing to watch women’s sports, which sends a message to sports media networks. If attitudes change at the professional level, the effects can trickle down to the high school and collegiate levels as well. 

U of T athletes summer roundup

What have Varsity Blues athletes and alumni been getting up to this summer?

U of T athletes summer roundup

Summer is a fantastic time for Varsity Blues athletes to get experience away from campus. There were several tournaments and competitions where current students and alumni alike showcased the skills they had learned with the Blues programs to the world. 

FINA World Championships

This July, Varsity Blues athletes came up big at the 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships, in Gwangju, South Korea, with U of T alum Kylie Masse and current Varsity Blues swimmer Rebecca Smith helping Canada finish with its best-ever medal count. Masse, who won a bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics, earned one of the two Canadian gold medals for the 100-metre backstroke. She also won a bronze medal in the 200-metre backstroke and in the 4×100-metre medley relay, alongside with Rebecca Smith. 

Smith also won bronze medals in the 4×100-metre and 4×200-metre freestyle relays. Team Canada finished the competition with their best showing yet, winning two gold medals and six bronze medals. They also reached 19 finals — the most since the 1978 world championship.

Canadian Track and Field Championships 

At the Canadian Track and Field Championships Varsity Blues alum Madeleine Kelly won the 800-metre title in a close race with two-time Olympian Melissa Bishop, overtaking her in the last second to secure the gold medal by only 0.03 seconds. During her time at U of T, Kelly helped the Blues win first-place finishes in the 4×400-metre relays in 2016 and 2017 and the 4×800-metre relay in 2017 and 2018. When she is not training, Kelly is a regular contributor to the Canadian Running Magazine. Although her victory may have been considered an upset, her colleagues thought differently. 

“Honestly, nobody at Canadian Running was particularly surprised by the result. Kelly has been working hard and consistently achieving times of 2:02 flat and under, attending training camps through the winter, competing at meets in Canada, the US and Europe in both the 800m and the 1,500m, and steadily improving her times through the indoor and outdoor seasons,” fellow Canadian Running writer Anne Francis wrote in a piece profiling her. 

FISU Summer Universiade 

There was even more success abroad for Varsity Blues swimmers with two winning medals at the Summer Universiade in Naples, Italy. Hannah Genich and Ainsley McMurray, the only Varsity Blues athletes to bring home a medal from the Universiade across all sports, secured the bronze medal in the 4×100-metre medley relay. In addition, U of T coach Michèle Bélanger coached Team Canada to a 13th place finish in women’s basketball. In total, Team Canada won a total of one gold, one silver, and four bronze medals at this competition.

Canadian Swimming Championships 

Varsity Blues athletes brought home nine more medals from the Canadian Swimming Championships, held in Winnipeg in August. Hannah Genich and Ainsley McMurray once again lead the way, with Genich winning a gold medal in the 100-metre butterfly, silver in the 200-metre butterfly, and bronze in the 50-metre butterfly. McMurray earned a silver medal in the 100-metre freestyle, and bronze in the 50-metre freestyle. 

Alumnus Eli Wall struck gold twice, winning in both the 50-metre and 200-metre breaststroke, the latter securing him the top swim performance at the meet. Fellow alum Matt Dans won silver medals in the 50-metre and 100-metre butterfly and current second-year swimmer Graeme Alyward nearly made the podium as well, finishing in fourth place in the 100-metre breaststroke. 

The SAD side of sport

How mental illnesses like seasonal affective disorder affect athletes

The SAD side of sport

Unfortunately, for U of T students and Torontonians in general, winter is here. Though we were wearing spring jackets on Christmas Day and hadn’t had to pick up a shovel in months, we all knew deep down that the record-breaking warmth of November and December wasn’t going to last.              

Alongside sub-zero temperatures, the winter season also means navigating physical and, sometimes, mental challenges. For student-athletes, the addition of icy conditions, the lack of daylight, and seasonal health risks are dangerous because of their hindering effects on an athlete’s ability to train efficiently and maintain their school work.              

One of the biggest downsides to the winter season for students and athletes is seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which affects more than two per cent of Canadians in their lifetime. SAD as a term is widely misused and abused by people who claim that they ‘hate the cold and winter’ and must therefore be suffering. In actuality, SAD is a mental illness that accounts for 10 per cent of all depression cases and affects millions of Canadians every winter season.      

Though research into the prevalence of SAD in student-athletes is scarce, an American study found that National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) athletes are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health issues than their non-athlete classmates.

Symptoms such as lethargy can manifest themselves in many ways, like difficulty getting out the door for a run or excessive fatigue during workouts. Combined with increased cravings, this can result in significant fat gain for athletes.    As an athlete and sufferer of SAD, I know these symptoms well. Being physically cold in winter and desperately seeking a way to warm up, I became a master’s athlete on U of T’s track and field team. For me, athleticism worked as a way to pump endorphins into my brain and improve my mental health. For the student athlete who is having trouble finding motivation, there are other forms of therapy available to alleviate mental illnesses like SAD.

I sat down in a Starbucks recently to talk to Sara Giovannetti, a representative from the University of Toronto Student-Athlete Mental Health Initiative (SAMHI) Campus Team. We discussed unique struggles student athletes face when dealing with mental health, and where they can go to get the right support. As an alternative to exercise, Giovannetti explained that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) — a psychological treatment that involves learning to change your thoughts and behaviours — can also help.    

Through many recent awareness initiatives, including Bell’s ‘Lets Talk’ campaign with six-time Olympic medalist Clara Hughes as its spokesperson, it is clear that the stigma surrounding mental illness is often harder for students and athletes to overcome than the physical symptoms. 

For athletes who pride themselves on their ‘toughness’, coming to terms with a mental illness like SAD can be difficult. Although student-athletes are able to juggle a lot of stress during their time in university, caused by assignments, competition conflicts, and deferred exams, sometimes the stakes become too high. “If an athlete were to become unwell, coaches may not know how to approach the situation and may feel nervous, or reluctant because discussions surrounding mental health can be challenging,” explained Giovannetti.

Among other resources to help students disclose their struggles to their coaches, SAMHI offers a Mental Health Action Plan (MHAP) for athletes to complete collaboratively with their coaches. “The tool allows student athletes who have identified that they have mental health issues to clarify the challenges, triggers, warning signs, and coping strategies that are important to their individual mental health needs,” said Giovannetti. She added that although the action plan is an important tool for students and coaches, it is not a substitute for professional mental health services.

Even though one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lives, the stigma associated with mental health — especially for athletes who are celebrated for their mental ‘toughness’ — prevents people from seeking help. “Everyone on the planet knows someone who has experienced a mental health issue” explained Giovannetti, who added that “Its not talked about very often [mental illness in sport]… I think a lot of people might be deterred from seeking help because it’s not talked about and feel embarrassed.”              

Although the effects of SAD and other mental health issues experienced by athletes are becoming more widely researched and the stigma is dissipating, a difference still remains between the speed and accessibility of healing physical injuries and mental ones.

For SAD sufferers, who may experience symptoms only a few months of the year, the stigma can become even more exaggerated — more research is necessary in the study of SAD and the relationship between the disorder and athletes. Organizations like SAMHI are invaluable resources for athletes whose mental game may be impacting their physical one.

SAMHI will host one of two ‘Mental Health Matchups’ on February fifth when the Blues men’s and women’s basketball teams take on Brock at the Goldring Centre. The event will connect students with on-campus and community resources and raise awareness for the importance of mental health in the sports community.

Sports in brief

A round-up of the top sports stories from around the university

Sports in brief

Track and field athletes clean up at home opener

Last weekend, the Varsity Blues men’s and women’s track and field team hosted the 2016 Fred Foot Memorial Meet at the Athletic Centre field house. The competition saw multiple athletes make OUA and CIS standards, as well as win a host of gold-medals. James Turner, a fifth-year kinesiology student, lead the way for the men’s team, winning the men’s heptathlon competition by racking up 5,430 points. Turner, the defending OUA and CIS champion in the multi-events competition, has surpassed his 2015 CIS gold-medal winning decathlon performance by 1,353 points. Fourth-year student Ekua Cudjoe made CIS standard in the weight throw competition with a throw of 17.09m. In addition to making the national standard, Cudjoe won the shot put competition with a throw of 12.45m, 82cm longer than her OUA throw last year. Leading the way for the Blues men’s jumps squad was second-year computer engineering student James Elson who won gold and silver in the high jump and triple jump competitions, respectively. Despite missing some of the track and field program’s most accomplished athletes, the team managed to win seven gold medals. Next up for the team will be the OUA championships on February 29 at York.

Blues men’s volleyball annihilate Nipissing

The Varsity Blues men’s volleyball team had a stellar night defeating the Nipissing Lakers on Saturday in North Bay, putting the Blues in fourth place in the OUA — just two points behind Queen’s. The win helped the Blues improve their record to 7-4, and was characterised by spectacular individual feats from several players including third-year right hitter William Colucci and captain Aidan Haslett. Colucci and Haslett both managed career-high kills during the game with 23 and 16, respectively. Colucci, who is studying environmental science and ethics, has now moved up to sixth spot on the OUA kill per set count, right behind teammate Stefan Ristic who sits in second position. Improving immensely from last season, the men have already beaten last years 4-16 record and moved up six places on the OUA leader board with eight games left until the OUA quarter finals. The men’s next game on Monday January 17 will see the Blues looking to redeem themselves against the York Lions who beat them 3-1 in their last game. You can watch the game at the Goldring Centre; the first serve is set for three o’clock.

Women’s hockey lose 3-2 to Gryphons men on two game winning streak

The Varsity Blues women’s hockey team dropped a close 3-2 decision to the Guelph Gryphons on Saturday, bringing the Blues to sixth position on the OUA leader board. Top seed in the OUA, the Gryphons scored their winning goal on a power play with 7.7 seconds remaining in the game, bringing their season average to 10-2. Both teams stayed on the ice post-game to pay tribute to Denna Laing, the NWHL player who sustained a serious spine injury competing at the inaugural outdoor women’s classic on December 31.

In men’s hockey action, the Blues won their second straight game on Saturday 4-1, defeating the visiting Brock Badgers. The men were aided by superb goaltending from Andrew Hunt, making 24 saves in the match. The Blues have several players within the top 10 on the OUA leader board, including goalie Brett Willows in sixth spot with 164 post-season saves. The men will try to make a three game streak when they take on the Mustangs on January 21 in London.