The cannabis-derived chemical compound is all the rage among athletes looking to manage pain, alleviate stress, and enhance performance. Here's what you need to know before trying them out yourself.
Andrew Talanksy doesn’t smoke weed. As a professional triathlete, he could be drug-tested at any time, so even if he wanted to touch the stuff, he couldn’t. Still, Talansky’s biggest sponsor, Floyd’s of Leadville, is a cannabis brand: He’s fond of the company’s cannabidiol (CBD) softgels, which he takes to reduce chronic aches and pains, help him sleep, and ease competition-related stress.
Paid endorsers aren’t the only athletes experimenting with CBD as a performance enhancer. After trying CBD in conjunction with its psychoactive relative, THC, trail runner Jake Marty now pops a gummy that contains both substances to deal with “the pain cave,” as he puts it. Recently, he’s noticed more of his friends dabbling with CBD supplements, too: “Some people have it the night before a workout,” he says. “Usually less have it during. And most are stoked to have it after as recovery.”
Can CBD make you a better athlete, too? Or is this miracle supplement as legitimate as the tummy-toning vitamins endorsed by former Bachelor contestants on Instagram? Below, we answer all of your most pressing questions about how CBD works, what medical professionals have to say about it, and in what circumstances it can give you an edge. Maybe.
What is this thing, and how is it supposed to work?
CBD is one of the 104 chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant that lack the psychoactive properties of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the one responsible for getting you high. Googling “CBD health benefits” yields articles that tout its healing properties for everything from pain relief to anxiety, and studies that examine its effectiveness in treating neurological disorders like epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. These claims make it an intriguing option for athletes looking to ease sore muscles after a workout, manage chronic pain, or stress less over a big race.
What does science say?
It’s complicated. There’s a ton of anecdotal evidence of athletes using cannabis as a stress reliever and recovery tool. But there’s no definitive research on CBD and athletes, says Ryan Vandrey, a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine professor whose research has evaluated the use of cannabis and cannabinoids to treat health conditions. The problem, he explains, is that CBD has hit the market without the type of research that support drugs regulated by the FDA. Now, science has to catch up.
“There’s an inability to get funding for studies, so physicians are unable to get the information they need to best understand how cannabis is going to work,” he says. “What we end up with is a market flooded with kind-of-crazy marketing tactics—there’s bath bombs, oils, creams, lotions, and tinctures. Any way you can possibly use cannabodial, there’s a product for it. But we have no data to know if it’s working.” CBD’s close relationship with a semi-forbidden substance is a great marketing ploy, because it makes it difficult for consumers to figure out which claims are legitimate.
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Marcel Bonn-Miller, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, echoes Vandrey’s concerns. He stresses that while there is mounting evidence that CBD can be helpful for anxiety and recovery, most of the studies thus far have been done in rodents. And since federal law doesn’t regulate the CBD market, there’s no way to know if the products you’re consuming even contain what they say they do. His most recently study found that nearly 70 percent of cannabidiol extracts sold online are mislabeled. “If I were a consumer, I would be very cautious, not just about the contents and quality, but also about the claims being made,” he says.
Is it legal under doping rules?
Yes. However, according to Bonn-Miller, his study also found a number of products that claimed to only contain CBD also contained a significant amount of THC—which, according to the World Doping Agency, is still illegal. So even though the organization removed CBD from its list of banned substances in January, findings like his pose a serious risk to professional athletes (and anyone who might get drug tested for any reason, of course).
How do athletes use it?
1. To alleviate chronic pain
Certain CBD products, including softgels, topical creams, and epsom salts, promise relief from aches like lower back pain or injury. Matthew Meyer, 26, a running coach and competitive athlete in New York City, swears by a topical CBD-infused cream to ease residual sensitivity in his tibia stemming from an old stress fracture.
Bad news, though: Bonn-Miller warns that there isn’t any evidence that suggests CBD, by itself, can even penetrate the skin—meaning that other ingredients, or perhaps a placebo effect, may be responsible for cream-induced relief. Whether placebo or pharmacological, he allows that CBD-related relief is better than turning to opioids: “Compared to opioids, CBD doesn’t appear to be very addictive, nor is it known to have bad side effects. From that perspective, it’s definitely safer.”
2. As an ibuprofen alternative
Popping an ibuprofen or Advil is a common practice for many athletes after a hard race or rough-and-tumble sports game. Lately, CBD oral softgels been touted as more natural form of relief for minor aches and pains, too.
But the study often referenced in articles that make these claims—a 2016 look at CBD’s effects on arthritic rats—used a synthetic CBD product that contained a penetration enhancer, so it can’t be compared to what’s available on the market, Bonn-Miller warns. Also, again, the study was done on rats. So, despite the rave reviews and positive anecdotes, there’s no hard evidence that it works.
3. For routine recovery
Studies do show that CBD has anti-inflammatory properties and can help individuals fall asleep, which accelerates the entire recuperating process. This is the idea behind products like CBD-enhanced protein powder. Pat Haymaker, 32, takes a CBD-infused gummy after a tough workout to enhance what he’s already doing to recover: “[CBD] helps relax my muscles so I can foam roll even deeper, and work out the kinks while ignoring the pain a bit more.”
But again, Bonn-Miller warns, the research is limited. He recommends athletes try effective, proven treatments before resorting to CBD—in this case, think stretching, or massaging your muscles.
4. To reduce game-day stress
This might be the area with the most encouraging evidence, says Bonn-Miller—studies performed with actual human subjects (not rats) have shown that it has some anxiety-reducing properties. Emphasis on “some,” though. “There’s more evidence for CBD’s potential for easing anxiety than there is for a lot of other claims about its benefits,” he says. “But that’s still not saying much.”
5. To perform better
You may have noticed a surge in ultrarunners referring to cannabis-enhanced runs, or snowboarders boasting about really great rides after toking up. The only problem? Those studies and anecdotes focus on the effects of THC, not CBD.
“There are no studies measuring CBD’s effect on sport, and it is devoid of cardiovascular actions of note,” says Michael Kennedy, Ph.D., a cardiologist and clinical pharmacologist who reviewed 15 published studies on cannabis and exercise performance. “Different types of cannabis may have a lot of therapeutic values—but none of it will make you run fast, and it won’t make you stronger.”
If you’re stoked on getting, uh, stoked, there are ways to ensure that CBD-infused supplements are what they say they are. Bonn-Miller recommends calling the companies who make the products you’re thinking about using and asking for an ingredients list. “Find out what’s in their products, and how often they test them. What do they do to ensure that their product is standardized over time? You can do that with any company,” he says. Be bold! “It’s not asking for anything crazy.”
Not everyone imposes such stringent standards on their supplements, though. Even if they understand that they might be buying snake oil, some CBD enthusiasts are content with that possibility. “I really don’t know if it does anything,” Marty admits. “But it feels like it does, so that’s enough.”