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I Tried Working Out on Kratom So You Don’t Have To

Supplement companies with a lot of product want us to think "preworkout kratom" is a thing.

A wheatpaste ad for "CBD Kratom" as "Your new preworkout" with a woman in workout gear squatting next to the ad copy.

(Hell Gate)

A spectre is haunting New York City. Or, at least, I'm feeling haunted by a particular poster pasted onto construction site walls all around Brooklyn. On it, a woman in a snowy white sports bra and matching shorts crouches, sweaty and beaming, with slack battle ropes in both hands. She looks like she could be advertising a new gym chain or athleisure brand, or maybe something totally unrelated to exercise, like an Instagram-friendly optometrist. But the five words floating in space above her reveal the product being pushed: "Experience Kratom, Your New Preworkout Supplement."

Excuse me? The only reason I can imagine someone taking kratom before working out is if they were looking for an excuse to stay home and lie down instead. In my experience, kratom is a weird, hazy, focus-dulling and nausea/constipation-inducing bad time. Combining those effects with a bunch of heavy objects and sweaty strangers sounds like literal hell on Earth to me. But—could I be wrong? I decided to find out.

Kratom, derived from a plant that's part of the coffee family, is best known for its opioid-like effects. A 2021 study found most users take it in larger doses for its sedative effects to manage pain or to dull heroin or prescription painkiller withdrawal. In small doses, it can act like a stimulant, which, if I had to guess, is the logic behind the ad campaign. Kratom proponents point to its use as traditional herbal medicine and the fact that it can be used as a harm reduction tool for people trying to kick opioids—but the quality and content of kratom for sale in the U.S. market is not regulated by the FDA or any other governmental entity. (The FDA even warned consumers against buying kratom products in April 2022.) While some states have introduced bans on kratom, it is currently fully legal to buy and sell it across New York state, although in 2021, a bill was introduced by Democratic Assemblymember Phil Steck that would make it illegal to sell to anyone under the age of 21. 

These ads pushing the connection between kratom and fitness are part of a campaign from a retailer called CBD Kratom, a chain of dispensaries that opened its first location in 2016 and sells exactly what you think: CBD and kratom, plus a bunch of other cannabis products that fall under the "I'm not touching you!" umbrella of legality, like Delta-8 gummies and hemp joints. There are currently twelve different CBD Kratom storefronts in New York City, including in Chelsea, Times Square, Lenox Hill, Williamsburg, and even inside our mayor's favorite members-only club, NoHo's Zero Bond. They have additional locations in Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, St. Louis, and Chicago.

Like many companies that hawk kratom—companies with names like Kraken Kratom and Super Natural Botanicals—CBD Kratom's website is filled with sound and compelling information about the supplement. One blog post about the benefits of kratom includes a section that suggests customers use kratom to "power through" their workout and lists its potential benefits, including pain relief, mood-boosting, increase in motivation, and stress reduction. I remained skeptical.

I reached out to CBD Kratom and asked them if they were willing to get on a call with me and answer questions about kratom as a preworkout supplement; while no one responded to my email, a salesman at the company's new Downtown Brooklyn store was happy to answer a few questions about the posters. He pointed out the strains of powdered kratom people take before they work out ("green vein" and "white vein," for the record), and even described another one as "herbal Adderall." He suggested I purchase a kratom seltzer, allegedly a preworkout favorite. When I asked him whether he used kratom before working out himself, he gave me a roundabout answer—including the phrase "to each their own, you know?"—that boiled down to, "No." I picked out a kratom cold-brewed tea anyway; it was allegedly lemon-flavored with hints of "earthy kratom," but it tasted distinctly chemical to me. 

I ended up finishing half the bottle of tea—the label said it contained three servings total, oops!—and around 30 minutes later, I gave working out the old college try. 

While I'm sure your mileage could vary, especially if you've enjoyed taking kratom in the past, which I have not, I would not take kratom before trying to exercise again. I did not feel especially motivated or energized; instead, my head felt soupy, and my thoughts were unfocused. It took me longer than usual to decide what I wanted to do, and a few minutes into a Yoga With Adriene "core conditioning" workout, I felt bored and distracted, foggy and irritable. Instead of focusing on the exercises at hand, my mind wandered to the condition of my legs (dry) and the tea sloshing around in my stomach. Frustrated, I threw in the towel and watched a YouTube video of the "TOP 15 Forbidden Places You're Not Allowed to Visit" instead. 

Still, as a natural quitter and kratom questioner, I worried I was biased, so I tagged in a few experts to weigh in. When I texted Casey Johnston (who is, full disclosure, my former editor), the proprietor of the fitness newsletter She's A Beast whose upcoming book "Lifted" will expand on her years of writing about weightlifting, her response was succinct: "Uh, this might be the most insane thing I've ever heard?" she wrote. "I've never personally had kratom but upon Googling it sounds like the effects of kratom are 'ruins your life.' Sounds inadvisable for taking as preworkout." 

Joseph Palamar, an associate professor at New York University who has studied kratom use over the course of his research, said that people using kratom as a preworkout supplement should proceed with caution, and pointed me to a case in which a fitness instructor ingested tainted kratom before a workout and ended up having a stroke. "Kratom, at low doses, does often have stimulant effects so it's understandable that some people may wish to use this to motivate or enhance their workouts," Palamar wrote via email. "What would concern me is frequent and/or heavy use as this can increase risk for addiction. We all need to be careful regarding what supplements we take, especially for working out, as these aren't regulated substances. As someone who has been lifting for over 25 years, I'm more old school. Caffeine usually does the trick for me."

So, is the kratom-fitness combo strong enough to merit flyering New York City? I don't think so. Given the fact that almost everything online that connects kratom to exercising comes from a website that also sells kratom, it feels safe to say that a desire to offload their stock onto adventurous gym lovers could be the play here. Kratom and CBD both feel like "legal because the stakes are low" drugs to me—but if you find yourself entranced by that glowy, sweaty woman in white, I'd recommend you "experience kratom" and then go on TikTok or clear out your email inbox instead.

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