Performance-enhancing psychedelics: Can LSD make you better at sport?
With the Tokyo Olympics almost upon us, the world’s best athletes are converging on Japan and it seems inevitable the topic of performance-enhancing drugs will at some point rear its head. The usual suspects – steroids, stimulants, etc. – will obviously be closely monitored, but what about other drugs, such as psychedelics, not commonly thought to be performance-enhancing?
Can LSD improve athletic performance? If so, then how? And what does this mean for elite sport in the future?
A no-hitter on acid
One of the most iconic, possibly apocryphal, drug stories of the 20th century is the tale of Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis throwing a no-hitter while tripping on LSD in 1970. Ellis recounted his story in great detail to NPR shortly before his death, and the audio from that interview was used to create a fantastic short film.
The story goes, Ellis had been partying with friends the day before a big game. Acid, alcohol and marijuana were all involved. Upon waking from a nap, and thinking it was still the same day, Ellis took more acid before a friend informed him he was meant to pitch in a few hours.
Ellis raced to the airport, jumped on a plane, and got to the stadium around four or five hours into the acid trip. His memory of the game is blurry, unsurprisingly, and almost no footage exists from the game to easily verify the incredible story.
“I started having a crazy idea in the fourth inning that Richard Nixon was the home plate umpire,” Ellis recounted in an interview years later. “And once I thought I was pitching a baseball to Jimi Hendrix, who to me was holding a guitar and swinging it over the plate.”
A no-hitter, where a pitcher prevents an opposing team from hitting the ball even once during the course of a game, is a stunningly rare achievement. Since the beginning of Major League Baseball in 1876 only 312 no-hitters have been thrown – and if we believe Ellis’ story, one of those was accomplished while under the influence of LSD.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) currently does not specifically prohibit the use of classical psychedelics such as LSD or psilocybin in sport. The agency does, however, prohibit pharmacological substances “with no current approval by any governmental regulatory health authority for human therapeutic use”, which would cover psychedelic drugs. Despite this, WADA does not assume these substances are performance-enhancing.
Psychedelics and extreme sports
Sure, it may seem like a fair assumption that psychedelic drugs are not performance-enhancing, at least not in the way we would traditionally expect drugs to be performance-enhancing. But, as legendary journalist James Oroc outlined in an iconic essay, there has long been a strange relationship between underground psychedelic culture and extreme sports.
Oroc’s essay describes the birth of the extreme sports movement in the 1980s as being deeply connected to the psychedelic-era refugees from the late 60s and early 70s. He explains that as the potency of the "street acid” dropped in the 1980s from the powerful dissociative extremes of the 60s, users began to explore what are known as psycholytic doses.
A psycholytic dose of LSD is somewhere between a strong high dose and a microdose. Whereas the goal of microdosing is to ensure the drug is consumed in doses that are not acutely felt, psycholytic dosing is most certainly felt. But, as Oroc explains, this sweet spot of psychedelic consumption is considered by many extreme sports athletes as performance-enhancing, at least anecdotally.
“According to the combined reports of 40 years of use by the extreme sports underground, LSD can increase your reflex time to lightning speed, improve your balance to the point of perfection, increase your concentration until you experience “tunnel vision”, and make you impervious to weakness or pain,” Oroc claims. “LSD’s effects in these regards are in fact legendary, universal, and without dispute.”
In 2019 Sarah Rose Siskind ran an ultramarathon on LSD at Burning Man. Siskind intended the experience to be therapeutic, following a traumatic near-death experience at Burning Man the year prior.
Siskind was not unfamiliar with either LSD or ultramarathons and had experimented with shorter runs before the big event to make sure the drug didn’t trigger any dangerous physiological effects in conjunction with the physical exertion.
“I trained physically in that I had been running ultramarathons for the past two and a half years,” Siskind said in a 2019 interview with Psymposia. “And, I trained for the drug intake. I did one training run where I ran 20 miles on LSD, and I found that the main problem was that I ran extraordinarily slowly – I was so distracted by everything. So, I figured it wasn’t a performance-enhancing drug, exactly. But, it certainly wasn’t increasing my risk profile.”
Her description of the experience doesn’t suggest the drug made it easier to run the long marathon. Instead, unsurprisingly, the psychedelic simply amplified what was already an intensely psychological experience. Siskind certainly isn’t the first person to reportedly run an ultramarathon on LSD but it does seem clear psychedelics can be just as much of a performance-hinderer as a performance-enhancer.
These performance-enhancing effects of psychedelics may be “without dispute” in certain underground sub-cultures but it is unlikely an elite athlete would be taking a high dose of LSD before participating in a major gold-medal event in the Olympics.
But what about microdosing?
With scientists now beginning to investigate the popular phenomenon of microdosing there are only anecdotes and reports from citizen scientists offering insights into the possible performance-enhancing effect of this behavior. The few published studies on microdosing are decidedly inconclusive and it’s unclear how much the placebo effect plays a role in the popularly reported benefits of microdosing.
Anecdotally, online reports vary from, “I shoot hoops really well” when microdosing psychedelics to, “it slows my reaction speed”. One citizen scientist, documenting the effect of microdosing psilocybin on athletic performance, suggests there definitely appears to be some kind of performance-enhancing outcome but it is almost impossible to know how much of a placebo effect is at play.
“This [performance-enhancing] effect, as expected, is more psychological than physiological, though it will be argued that there is little need to differentiate between the mind and the body when it comes to improving sportive ability in this sort of context,” the researcher writes.
And here the performance-enhancing potential of microdosing psychedelics may be relevant for high-level athletes. It is no newsflash to suggest elite sports are as much about training the mind as the body.
Sports psychologist Stan Beecham explains, when you reach the highest echelons of professional sport, everyone is talented. The difference between winning and losing in an Olympic event often comes down to milliseconds or millimeters.
And in these instances a winning, performance can become more about training the mind than training the body. But Beecham argues top level athletes win by learning how to switch off their minds and get into the flow of the moment.
“The reality is not that [top athletes] think differently,” Beecham said in an interview with Forbes. “It’s that they don’t think. It’s the absence of thought. It’s the absence of cognition. It’s the absence of emotion. That really is the advantage.”
When James Oroc wrote about the relationship between extreme sports and LSD he referred to the similarities in the way professional athletes talk of “being in the zone” and recollections of people on psychedelics.
“It is interesting to note the similarities between the recollection of these athletic feats while in this psycholytic state, and descriptions that professional athletes give of 'Being in the Zone', a mythical heightened “state” of neo-perfection where athletes report very psychedelic effects such as time slowing down and extraordinary feats of instantaneous non-thinking coordination,” Oroc writes. “Athletes and normal individuals also claim the same effects in moments of heightened adrenaline – the classic fight or flight response.”
Over the coming years, as more robust research is performed on psychedelics, we will hopefully begin to get a clearer picture of the broad effects of these drugs. And as sport reaches even higher levels of precision, athletes will undoubtedly look for whatever advantage they can get – even if it potentially puts their health at risk in the process, as is often the case with many performance-enhancing drugs and extreme training regimes.
Arguments are already brewing over what constitutes an unfair advantage in sport. In the past it was relatively easy to draw the line at performance-enhancing drugs, but as technological advances thrust us into a transhumanist world of bionic implants and genomic editing it is becoming harder and harder to predict where professional sports is heading.
Elite athletes spend their lives training for such specific physical feats that their bodies are already somewhat unnaturally optimized. Are psychedelics, or other mind-manifesting pharmacological substances, the logical next step to help separate the best from the best of the best? What will the Olympics look like in 50 years?