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Can Psychedelics Improve Athletic Performance?

One thing’s for sure: They didn’t hurt these athletes’ game

Damon Orion

In 2022, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story on pro athletes who use psychedelics. The piece concluded with a rhetorical question: “If it’s not a physical performance enhancer but it can drastically improve people’s mental health, why shouldn’t it be allowed?” That quote came from an anonymous member of a major sports league who has used ketamine and psychedelic mushrooms for mental health. 

But here’s the rub: Some psychedelics just might enhance physical performance. Numerous athletes have claimed that at manageable doses, psychedelics can be an asset in sports like rock and mountain climbing, hang gliding, skiing, surfing, mountain biking, snowboarding, skateboarding and motocross racing. 

This isn’t a new concept. In his 1992 book Food of the Gods, the famed ethnobotanist and psychedelic advocate Terence McKenna proposed that by boosting visual acuity, small doses of psilocybin mushrooms may have improved early primates’ ability to hunt. That theory has been hotly contested, but even if the use of psychedelics to enhance physical performance doesn’t go as far back as the caveman days, it dates at least as far back as the 1930s, when athletes used ibogaine to improve their game. 

However, the 1970s were the setting for the classic true-life tale of this type of psychedelic use.

Ellis, D.  

According to legend, Major League Baseball player Dock Ellis scored his one and only no-hitter while under the notoriously powerful sway of LSD. 

The story, as the late Ellis himself has told it, goes like this: On June 12, 1970, the day after an epic bender, he dropped acid at around noon. Ellis, then the pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, thought he had the day off. An hour or two later, his girlfriend, also tripping, saw in the newspaper that he was scheduled to pitch that day.  

Thus, at 3 p.m., Ellis hopped on a plane from Los Angeles to San Diego. He was, to borrow an endearing phrase from his own lexicon, “high as a Georgia pine” when he entered the ballpark at 4:30. 

The game began at roughly 6 p.m. Instead of freaking out, Ellis—something of an LSD MVP—rolled with it. As he later told the Pittsburgh Press, I was psyched. I had a feeling of euphoria.” 

Though he could only remember fragments of the game, he recalled, “I was zeroed in on the [catcher’s] glove, but I didn’t hit the glove too much. I remember hitting a couple of batters, and the bases were loaded two or three times. The ball was small sometimes, the ball was large sometimes, sometimes I saw the catcher, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I tried to stare the hitter down and throw while I was looking at him. I chewed my gum until it turned to powder.” 

Ellis also recalled diving out of the way of a ball that he thought was a line drive. “I jumped, but the ball wasn't hit hard and never reached me.” 

As he told the New York Times, “I started having a crazy idea in the fourth inning that Richard Nixon was the home plate umpire, 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.”

Naturally, this tale has provoked some skepticism. However, former Houston Astros pitcher Scipio Spinks, a close friend of Ellis, has said that based on what he knows of the pitcher from personal experience, he’s certain that the story is true. The only statement he questions is that Ellis’ altered state of consciousness was accidental. In 2014, he told the New York Post he believed Ellis was aware he would be pitching that day, and that he “just decided he wanted to see what it was like” to play the game on LSD.

In any case, the Pirates won 2-0 that day. Ellis walked eight batters and struck out six from his Georgia-pine vantage point. As the only no-hitter of his career, this was his crowning achievement.   

Ayahuasca and … Football? 

Football and ayahuasca might seem to go together like silent meditation and fireworks … and to be fair, it probably wouldn’t be a great idea to try to play football under the influence of ayahuasca. However, a deep aya cleansing can be like an oil change for the body, mind and spirit, boosting overall performance in the days and weeks that follow. 

Case in point: One of the standout speakers at MAPS’ Psychedelic Science 2023 conference was NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers. In a dialogue with author/entrepreneur Aubrey Marcus, Rodgers, who has praised psilocybin and ayahuasca for improving his mental and emotional well-being, strongly implied that ayahuasca has helped improve his game. 

Comparing his athletic performances in 2019 vs 2020, the 2020 league MVP noted, “The previous year: 26 touchdowns, four interceptions. We had a good season. [After taking] ayahuasca: 48 touchdowns, five interceptions. What are you going to say?” 

26 Miles High  

On Sunday, March 19, 2023, DJ/music producer Diplo woke up late, put some LSD in his water and drank this as he headed to Dodger Stadium. Though he’d never run more than 14 miles before, he proceeded to complete the 26.2-mile L.A. Marathon in less than four hours. 

“My body started to break down by mile 17,” he told Esquire magazine. “It was the longest I had ever ran, and I didn’t even notice it. I attribute that to the LSD."

He added that he wouldn’t recommend this to anyone else. 

Diplo, who claims to have weaned himself off alcohol by using LSD, noted, "I do a lot of LSD, but I’m not tripping and looking at the stars going, 'Whaaa?' I microdose it, maybe a little more."  

Play By the Rules 

There are indications that along with being potential athletic aids, psychedelics may be able to help athletes get back in the game after they’ve sustained concussions and other debilitating injuries

One such athlete, retired NHL hockey player Riley Cote, has also said psychedelics can indirectly enhance athletic ability by improving focus and decreasing stress and overthinking. 

Let’s not forget, though, that key factors like set, setting, dosage and timing need to be well-aligned for psychedelics to work as physical performance enhancers. Don’t even think about attempting any risky stunts under the influence of these compounds before duly researching those things, or you might give new meaning to the term “trip and fall.”

Damon Orion is a writer, musician, artist, and teacher based in Santa Cruz, CA. He has written for Revolver, Guitar World, Spirituality & Health, Classic Rock, High Times and other publications. Read more of his work at damonorion.com

Read more: Can We Please Stop Thinking of Psychedelics as Retro?

Listen: Queering Psychedelics with Mia Sarno

Read more: How Your DNA Affects Your Psychedelic Trips

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