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CBD for Athletes: Our Complete Guide

Learn about the science behind CBD for athletes, and find out what you need to know before you buy.

From runners and cyclists to basketball players and UFC fighters, athletes across the sporting spectrum experience pain and discomfort from their activities of choice.

Elite and professional athletes require months-long training cycles to earn the ability to perform at the top of their game. But this road can leave their bodies feeling destroyed.

Many of these athletes now turn to cannabidiol, or CBD, for post-workout recovery and pain relief. But does CBD oil really work? Read on to learn more about the potential health benefits of CBD, and stick around until the end to get some of our team’s top product recommendations.

About CBD for Athletes

Claim

Products containing CBD provide a range of health benefits for athletes. It may help with everything from joint pain and general inflammation to anxiety and sleep.

Research Shows

It is becoming well established by research that CBD is highly effective in combating inflammation and pain.

Just the Facts

While much of the evidence supporting the use of CBD is anecdotal, more and more studies are emerging that show real, empirical benefits.

About CBD for Athletes

Hard-charging athletes often develop a reputation within their circles. They’re focused, disciplined, fit, healthy – and they look great in their jeans.

While these may be enviable traits, they often come at a price. Frequent, long, or intense workouts can leave individuals sore, achy, and inflamed. The pressure of competition or consequences of overtraining can cause anxiety, and the sum of physical and mental stressors can destroy sleep quality.

Historically, athletes facing these conditions have turned to over-the-counter pain medications, primarily NSAIDs such as aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen and naproxen. While effective in the short-term, long-term use of these drugs causes dangerous side-effects such as gastrointestinal bleeding.

CBD is one of many substances called phytocannabinoids, which are derived from the cannabis plant. Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, CBD is non-intoxicating and can occur abundantly in legal hemp plants. It affects the body by interacting with a network of receptors throughout the body that is known as the endocannabinoid system.

Forward-thinking athletes have begun to take a more natural route to relieve pain and inflammation, and CBD comes out on top as one of the most popular alternatives. But do the results live up to the hype?

The athletes who swear by CBD state that their joint pain, general inflammation, anxiety, and sleep are all improved when they use products like CBD tinctures or topical creams.

Read on to learn what real athletes have to say about their experiences with CBD.

How One Triathlete Uses CBD to Overcome Chronic Pain

I am a 2x Ironman [triathlon finisher] and have competed in over 50 other triathlons in the last 4 years…Without CBD oil, I’m not sure this would be possible.
— Rebecca D., Nurse & Triathlete
Rebecca D., an Indiana-based nurse and triathlete, describes CBD as radically changing her ability to participate in sports. She is impacted by debilitating lower back pain from scoliosis.

She says that because of daily CBD use, “I am a 2x Ironman [triathlon finisher] and have competed in over 50 other triathlons in the last 4 years. For my upcoming race season, I’m competing in Escape from Alcatraz and Ironman Louisville in addition to several other endurance races. Without CBD oil, I’m not sure this would be possible.”

In addition to the inevitable physical discomfort hard training provides, there are psychological barriers to peak performance. Athletes may experience anxiety due to hectic schedules, fierce competition, lack of sleep, or any of a million other reasons we humans tend to stress ourselves out.

Overtraining – a major stressor where the athlete pushes too hard for too long – is another possible source of stress. The irony of overtraining is that the athlete needs rest more than anything, but often finds it difficult to relax or sleep. Both anecdotal reports and research findings show that CBD can be helpful in these areas.

CBD for Sleep and Recovery

Diane Marx, a runner in Colorado, discovered CBD on accident. After winning a bottle of oil in a giveaway, she was pleased to reap both psychological and physical benefits from her good luck.

“At the time I was training for my tri[athlon]/running season and also had an incredibly stressful job,” she said. “Within a week, I noticed an improvement in my sleep, recovery and emotional state. I felt calmer and less volatile at work and didn’t feel the aches and pains after long runs like I usually did.”

I noticed an improvement in my sleep, recovery and emotional state. I felt calmer and less volatile at work and didn’t feel the aches and pains after long runs like I usually did.
— Diane Marx, Runner
Sleep studies have not provided conclusive evidence that CBD is effective for sleep. Most of the support is anecdotal.

On the other hand, there is a great body of evidence supporting the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabinoids. There are several proposed mechanisms for the phenomena. CBD may advance apoptosis, the process where the body encourages damaged cells to die, and then cleans them up. This is an important process in maintaining homeostasis.

Additionally, research suggests that cannabinoids change the function of cytokines. These proteins control the inflammation process in damaged tissues.

Athletes have many options when choosing CBD products. Many opt for salves and creams to target joints and achy muscles. Some use capsules or tinctures when inflammation is more widespread through the body. There are even CBD-infused drink mixes so that athletes may hydrate and address inflammation on the go.

Research Highlights

We’ve gathered some of the most important research relevant to CBD for athletes. Click on any of the sections below for more information on each study.

2018: Cannabis and the Elite Athlete

In 2018, the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine published a literature review conducted by researchers attempting to interpret the effects of cannabis on athletes. Conclusions were broad, but did paint a promising picture of the use of cannabis by athletes. The study did not differentiate between the effects of CBD vs. THC.

The first potential benefit of cannabis mentioned was a higher pain threshold. This benefit can be directly applied to training and competing, but there were no other indicators of performance enhancement. Additional improvements mentioned were better sleep time and recovery, and the facilitation of relaxation and anxiety reduction. These factors may only indirectly impact performance, but every athlete certainly finds them desirable.

2011: CBD, Inflammation, and Oxidative Stress

Oxidative stress results from an overabundance of free radicals, the highly reactive molecules that can cause tissue damage. Popular health literature frequently refers to these molecules as an enemy that can be combated with antioxidants, our good friends found in berries, for example. Free radicals come from various sources of bodily stressors, such as rancid oils, cigarette smoke, poor sleep, and heavy exercise.

CBD serves as a modest antioxidant, effectively neutralizing some free radicals. Beyond its antioxidant properties, CBD provides anti-inflammatory services to the body.

2011: CBD and Anxiety

This double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial showed a clear benefit in CBD usage for those living with anxiety disorders. In the study, individuals with and without severe anxiety disorders were faced with a public speaking situation.

Some participants with severe anxiety disorder received a dose of CBD prior to their speech. These individuals were able to give a 10 minute speech with a similar level of anxiety symptoms as the healthy controls. The anxious individuals on placebo experienced significant anxiety symptoms.

While this study targeted a specific type of severe anxiety, the results reveal the potential of CBD application for anxiety in many forms.

2009: CBD and Inflammation

This 2009 study looked at a range of cannabinoids – including CBD and THC, as well as synthetic cannabinoids – and their impact on inflammation. The study found the anti-inflammatory properties to be so substantial that the potential application of cannabinoids to a range of diseases was the main focus of the report. When CBD shows promise in relieving the inflammation related to painful chronic disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and colitis, tackling the ache of simple muscle soreness is a no-brainer.

Concerns About CBD for Athletes

2018 saw several policy changes reflective of the shifting views on the use of CBD. The primary change affecting athletes was the removal of CBD from the list of banned substances by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Now, athletes from Olympians to UFC fighters may use CBD without risk of professional repercussions.

But what about side effects that may affect athletic performance? To date, no deleterious side effects have been reported with CBD use; however, those interested in accessing the benefits do need to carefully read labels of the products they purchase.

That’s because many products available on the market are only labeled as containing CBD, but may actually contain trace amounts of THC. According to the 2018 Farm Bill, CBD products may contain up to 0.3 percent THC by weight to be considered fully legal nationwide.

THC, however, is still considered a banned substance by the World Anti-Doping Agency, so athletes must choose their products carefully.

Products that are labeled as “full spectrum” typically contain small amounts of THC. “Broad spectrum,” on the other hand, means that the product contains such a small amount of THC that it is not detectable in lab tests. Even these small traces may build up in the body over time, though. Finally, products labeled as “CBD isolate” should contain no THC at all.

But because the CBD industry is unregulated, there is a small risk that a product could be mislabeled. That’s why it’s important for consumers to do their own research and make sure that they are buying a high-quality brand from a reputable supplier.


Editor's Choice: CBD Oil Drops

Ready to add a good CBD oil to your training regimen? Check out some of our team’s top CBD isolate and broad-spectrum products below.

You can also check out this year’s full ranking of the Best CBD Oil Drops and the Top CBD Creams

Lazarus Naturals, High Potency CBD Isolate Tincture

Lazarus Naturals offers top-notch products at rock-bottom prices. This tincture delivers pure CBD isolate with the fresh, juicy flavor of blood oranges.

Save 10% with code: cbdhackr.

Shop Now


Pure Spectrum, XL Hemp Oil Tincture

Pure Spectrum offers a range of organic, THC-free, broad spectrum CBD products. Their tinctures and after-workout balms are two standout products that are designed with athletes in mind. And they stand behind their products with a 30-day satisfaction guarantee.

Shop Now


Green Gorilla, Hemp & Olive Pure CBD Oil

There are only a handful of USDA-certified organic CBD brands on the market today, and Green Gorilla was one of the first to earn the right to use the organic seal on their packaging.

They offer both CBD isolate and full-spectrum products to meet a variety of needs, packaged in a convenient spray bottle.

Shop Now


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The Author

Sara Kennedy

Sara Kennedy

Sara Kennedy lives in Alaska. She spends the dark winters reading and fat biking and the summers racing bikes and camping with her family.

She is a nutritional therapy consultant and certified personal trainer. You can also find her writing at Echo magazine.