Lofa Tatupu’s time in the NFL may only have run six years, but it felt like much longer as he battled injuries nearly every season of his pro career.
“It took everything in me to get my body and mind back in unison to get back on the field,” he says. “By the time I was in my fourth or fifth year, it felt like 28, 35 years of playing.”
Throughout his NFL career, Tatupu had five arthroscopic knee surgeries, a lateral compartment (leg) injury, tore ligaments in his wrist and ankle, broke his thumb twice, dealt with five serious concussions and tore both pectoral muscles, the last of which effectively ended his career.
For professional football players, that’s not uncommon. Players often describe each game as like going through a car wreck each week.
“It’s very unnatural, as a human, to subject yourself to that, if that’s what you’re asking,” Tatupu says with a laugh.
Even after leaving the league in 2012, the cumulative effects of two decades of football continued to wear on his body. But today, at the age of 37, Tatupu says he’s a new man and feels better than he did even when he was younger. And he attributes it all to the cannabis plant, particularly full-spectrum CBD oil — which he says “without a doubt” would have extended his professional career had he discovered it earlier.
Tatupu is now co-owner of both a cannabis company (1937 Farms in Washington) and a national CBD oil company (ZoneIn CBD) and is at the leading edge of a small and unexpected, but fast-growing demographic of cannabis and CBD consumers: Athletes.
A Growing Market
The traditional stereotype of a cannabis user is the stoner/slacker. It permeates movies and television, stretching all the way to Cheech & Chong, through Sean Penn’s turn as Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to Brad Pitt’s couch-locked, debut role in “Thelma & Louise” to modern portrayals by Seth Rogan in, well, just about everything he does.
But as legalization spreads from state to state, a fuller, more well-rounded picture of cannabis consumers has emerged, from medical patients of all ages treating a variety of symptoms to professionals in every field to yes, even athletes at all levels of competition.
And right now, the athletic market is thriving.
“One thing that’s been a surprise to a lot of non-cannabis enthusiasts is how widespread the use of cannabis is for athletic reasons,” says John Kagia, chief knowledge officer at New Frontier Data. “There’s a cohort of consumers who are very active and intense users of cannabis specifically for fitness-related reasons.”
According to Kagia’s research, a full 6% of cannabis users say they use it to improve fitness or training performance, primarily for relaxation, increased focus and reducing soreness. A deeper dive into that 6% shows it to be “younger” and nearly two-thirds of consumers who list “fitness” as a reason for their cannabis use consume at least twice a day, making it a valuable demographic for marketers and retailers.
“This is a category that is growing quickly and that we expect to see very significant growth in the future,” Kagia says, calling it “a dramatic explosion, in part because of the advent of CBD.”
With the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill that essentially legalized hemp and it derivatives, including CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid that has been found effective in treating a multitude of symptoms, many companies — including several started by former professional athletes like Tatupu — are moving into the space.
“I think it’s helping catalyze a conversation around not only athletes at the very highest level using cannabis … but also opening the door to a broader conversation around the specific application of cannabis as a fitness and training product,” Kagia says.
Kagia says the athletes most likely to use cannabis in training and recovery are those into “much more intense fitness activities,” such as endurance athletes like weight-trainers and marathoners.
“A lot of athletes who are using these products find that by integrating cannabis into their training they’re able to work out longer, harder and in a more focused way — and in some cases a more regimented way — than they would be able to do without it,” he says.
Kagia tells a story about a triathlete he knows who consistently had trouble focusing during the swimming portions and now uses vaporizers and edibles — the former for the first part of the swim, the latter kicking in halfway through — to help get through training. Kagia says it changed his training regimen because he could stay more focused and not lose concentration.
Several endurance athletes are now even sponsored by cannabis companies, including ultramarathoners like Avery Collins, who is sponsored by The Farm, and Flavie Dokken, who works with Wana Brands, both out of Colorado.
Dokken says she started incorporating cannabis into her training regimen about 10 years ago, when she was doing a lot of bodybuilding. Mainly, she used it for relaxation and recovery, to help bring her heart rate down and to alleviate pain from inflammation in her joints. She says she believes mixing THC with her CBD — usually in a 1:1 ratio — helps her recover faster.
“It’s a better recovery where I’m more in tune with my body,” she says, adding, “I think the best benefit is you can use it instead of some supplements.”
But Dokken will often eat an infused gummy before her workout to give her a little kick, instead of drinking coffee or taking a supplement of some kind. She also says that sometimes, during a five- to six-hour run, she also likes to have a gummy at the halfway point, to help her take her mind off nagging pain and finish strong.
“I do get a great energy boost from sativa products,” she says, but adds, “It’s not a magic pill.”
Dokken’s experience coincides with a study from the April 2019 Frontiers in Public Health journal called “The New Runner’s High?” that looked at the relationship between cannabis use and exercise behavior in states with an adult-use market. The study is based on a voluntary Facebook survey that targeted individuals who are 21 and over and live in California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon or Washington who “liked” pages related to cannabis use. One of the topics in the survey dealt with exercise and cannabis use.
Of the 620 participants, 605 responded to the exercise questions. Of those, 494 endorsed using cannabis before or after exercise. Among the results, the study found those who use cannabis during exercise “reported engaging in more minutes of aerobic and anaerobic exercise per week” and that doing so “enhances their enjoyment of and recovery from exercise, and approximately half reported that it increases their motivation to exercise.”
There have been a few other studies into the effects of cannabis on athletes, including one titled “Cannabis and the Health and Performance of the Elite Athlete,” published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine in September 2018.
That study found no evidence of “performance-enhancing effects,” but did use anecdotal evidence from athletes to conclude that “the potential beneficial effects of cannabis as part of a pain management protocol, including reducing concussion-related symptoms, deserve further attention.”
But even without additional research, the stories and anecdotal evidence from athletes who are already using cannabis and CBD products as part of their training routines is enough.
“The more the stories come out, like myself and several others, they’re just going to lend credibility,” says Tatupu.
Tatupu was drafted in the second round of the 2005 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks, despite being projected by analysts as a late-round pick. He says “not much was expected of me,” but as a rookie linebacker, he helped lead Seattle to its first Super Bowl in franchise history. In his first three seasons in the league, Tatupu led the Seahawks in tackles and was named to the Pro Bowl all three years.
But the toll of playing at a high level was beginning to wear on him. Even during the “storybook start” to his career, when most people thought nothing went wrong, he was dealing with injuries.
“That’s not uncommon to any athlete in any sport,” he says.
A pectoral tear ended his 2009 season. A second pectoral tear ended his career in 2012.
And he says today’s game is even rougher on players than in his day just 10 years ago.
“The guys keep getting bigger and faster (and) they continue to get smarter at the approach,” he says, so “the force of those hits becomes that much greater.”
Tatupu was prescribed anti-inflammatories and pain relievers by team doctors, but is quick to point out that the Seahawks did not prescribe opioids as frequently as he has heard from players in other organizations.
But the effects of a lifetime spent on the gridiron have lingered long after his playing days ended, and Tatupu regularly experienced difficulty sleeping as well as pain and inflammation when he would get up. He often took sleep aids and over-the-counter pain killers.
Tatupu says in 2015 he “stumbled across” Fairwinds Manufacturing’s full extract cannabis oil, available in the Washington market, and the effect made him decide to get involved as a way to help others. Tatupu says after trying the full spectrum, high-CBD oil, he slept through the night and woke up pain-free the next morning.
“I didn’t have to hang my feet off the edge of the bed, let the blood rush to them and then slowly limp to the bathroom. I was getting up, standing up and walking to the restroom after I slept a full night’s rest,” he says. “The pain sensation was getting less and less because, obviously, the inflammation was going down.”
Tatupu even went to the gym and says he didn’t want to leave because he felt good, shooting hoops for several hours before heading home. He and his wife both worried about what the next morning might bring, but were again pleasantly surprised.
“I wasn’t in any pain … I felt like I hadn’t even worked out,” he says. “Every day just kept getting better. I couldn’t believe it.”
Tatapu was officially a convert and believer in the power of CBD. The ZoneIn CBD product, a full-spectrum hemp extract, launched soon after, aimed squarely at the fitness market.
Other companies have also seen the opportunity and potential in the athletic market, including OLEO in Washington and Altitude Brands in Nevada.
OLEO makes powdered drink mixes containing CBD that are aimed at the fitness demographic. The company uses a “microencapsulation” process that creates a water-soluble mixture designed to be added to water before, during or after a workout.
CEO Skyler Bissell says he likes to mix it with coconut water while at the gym to help hydrate and because of the recuperative effects he feels when he drinks it. He mixes it into smoothies prior to his workout or into tea after.
Bissell also says he enjoys cycling and finds that when he uses the product, “afterwards, my body just feels better.”
“We would liken our products very much to a pre-workout powder or a protein powder or a supplement designed for recovery and therefore we look at those very large and fast-growing sectors of the dietary supplement space and think that that same trend will be apparent in CBD,” he says.
Bissell is clear and careful not to make any claims that his product treats or cures any medical conditions, but does tout the anecdotal benefits of athletes and ambassadors using OLEO.
“They are using the product before during and after the workouts to make sure they have less downtime in between and that they’re performing at their best,” he says.
Altitude founder and director Krista Whitley saw her chance to jump into the marketplace after her daughter, now 10, took up jujitsu and she saw the wear and tear that martial arts training can put on bodies. Her company launched the Black Belt CBD line in late 2018, starting with a topical formulated to help athletes deal with muscle soreness and fatigue and to help improve recovery so they can keep training.
“I really wanted to create a CBD version of Icy Hot that didn’t have all the artificial stuff,” she says.
She says Black Belt immediately saw “explosive” growth as 178 martial arts gyms signed up to sell the product within the first week of its launch.
“It was very clear there was a significant market opportunity,” Whitley says. “It launched like a rocket.”
Altitude sold $3 million worth of Black Belt CBD in 2018 and projects to sell at least $5 million in 2019. Whitley says one of the surprises for her was that the company expected the Black Belt CBD demographic to be mostly young men, but it’s the over-50 crowd that are the top buyers of the product.
According to Kagia, athletes themselves are also jumping into this market, either as ambassadors for brands like OLEO and Black Belt CBD or with their own companies.
“The advent of legal CBD has dramatically opened the door to cannabis brands and products specifically aimed at this athletic community,” Kagia says. “There’s quite a number of former professional athletes getting into this space.”
While former basketball players like John Salley and extreme athletes like Tony Hawk now each have their own products to market, Kagia says ex-football players like Tatupu have a growing presence in the industry as studies showing the pain-reliving, regenerative and potential neuroprotectant effects of cannabis continue to be released.
“The use of CBD products for athletic-related reasons is going to grow dramatically,” Kagia says. “At a time when so many people are trying to find the motivation to go to the gym and the motivation to stay focused while at the gym, I think the idea of products that are specifically aimed at athletes or people who are athletically minded could draw some compelling interest and it will certainly challenge some of these long-standing assumptions about stereotypes of the slacker/stoner.”
A better product
Though he could never be considered a slacker or stoner, cannabis products have definitely helped Tatupu stay motivated at the gym. He has continued working out since that first day he tried a CBD product and says it has helped him feel better and drop 40 pounds, but also says it has helped bring a balance back to his life. He says it helps him stay in the moment both at the gym and at home.
“These moments are all we have,” he says. “Balance is the key to life.”
Dokken’s story is similar. Today, at age 37, she’s still running and still competing, and she credits cannabis for helping her stay active.
“It’s helping my longevity,” she says, citing the pain from stress fractures she suffered more than six years ago. “If it wasn’t for CBD/THC products and to find alternative ways to deal with the injury, I think I would have had a harder time.”
Tatupu agrees that CBD products like ZoneIn can not only help younger athletes recover easier, but can also help them focus during the non-physical parts of training, like film work or studying plays, resulting in better health for the athletes and a better experience for fans.
“I think it could put a better product out on that field from an athletic perspective,” he says. “I feel like I am a better athlete than I was when I was in my prime.”