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CBD for Athletes: a Natural Route to Pain Relief?

From runners and cyclists to basketball players and UFC fighters, athletes across the sporting spectrum experience pain and discomfort from their activities of choice. Athletes require months-long training cycles to earn the ability to perform at the top of their game, but this road can leave an athlete’s body feeling destroyed.

Many of these athletes now turn to cannabidiol, or CBD, to better recover from their workouts, ease the pain of training, and allow competition without restriction. But does CBD really work? Read on to learn more.

About CBD for Athletes


Products containing CBD help athletes 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.

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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.

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 – a non-psychoactive cannabinoid usually derived from hemp – state that their joint pain, general inflammation, anxiety, and sleep are all improved when they use CBD-containing products.

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.

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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

4 Corners Cannabis - 10% off with code: 10CBDHacker2018 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% 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.

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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.