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CBD for Athletes: What You Need to Know About Cannabidiol

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Athletes put a lot of stress on our bodies, to positive and negative effect. Training stress stimulates adaptation and increased performance, but physical trauma and prolonged wear and tear also lead to injuries and pain. Current methods of pain management are effective, but they’re also killing people. In search of improved sports recovery and safer pain relief, many people are asking about cannabidiol or CBD for athletes. Should you?

Chronic use of over-the-counter pain relievers (i.e. NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen sodium) poses greater health risk than previously known, and we are in the midst of an epidemic of opioid addiction and overdoses that kill tens of thousands of Americans annually. In such a landscape, athletes are rightly curious about and eager for cannabidiols’ (CBD) promises of pain relief and reduced inflammation without the risks associated with NSAIDs or opioids.

Are CBD products right for you? There’s a lot here to unpack and consider, so get comfortable and read on.

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Is CBD legal for athletes?

Yes. Starting at the beginning of 2018, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) removed CBD from the list of prohibited substances – in or out of competition. (Here is the 2020 WADA Prohibited List.) The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) did the same, and they provide a “Marijuana FAQ” page to clarify the rules. There is an important caveat: ONLY CBD was removed from the prohibited list. The psychoactive component of marijuana, THC, is still prohibited in competition, as are synthetic cannabinoids. The specific wording is: “All natural and synthetic cannabinoids are prohibited, e.g.: In cannabis (hashish, marijuana) and cannabis products. Natural and synthetic tetrahydrocannabinols (THCs). Synthetic cannabinoids that mimic the effects of THC. Except: Cannabidiol.”

Interestingly, WADA set a urinary threshold of 150 nanograms per milliliter for THC, which is substantially more lenient than the previous limit of 15 nanograms per milliliter. The higher threshold is designed to lower the risk of an athlete testing positive due to casual use outside of competition. A USA Today article in 2016 quoted Ben Nichols, a spokesperson for WADA as saying, “Our information suggests that many cases do not involve game or event-day consumption. The new threshold level is an attempt to ensure that in-competition use is detected and not use during the days and weeks before competition.”

As for legality outside of sports, that’s a whole different matter. The federal, state, and local legality of cannabis and related products is constantly evolving. Check the laws in your area.

CBD Basics

Athletes can legally consume cannabidiol, but what is it, what does it do, and why would you use it?

To begin with, cannabinoids already exist in your body. Scientists have identified what they call the endocannibinoid system (ECS) that modulates the activity of neurons. (9) Cannabidiol (CBD) is a phytocannabinoid found naturally in the cannabis plant. Unlike THC, which is also found in cannabis, CBD is not psychoactive.

Beyond that, scientists understanding of how the ECS works and how CBD influences it is still evolving. For a long time, research in this area was hard to complete due to the legal status of marijuana. However, based on recent studies and 2018’s The Essentials of Pain Medicine, Fourth Ed., here are the basics (5).

Within your nervous system, two endocannabinoids (2-AG and EAE) are produced in postsynaptic neurons (downstream) and released into the synapse. They bind to CB1 and CB2 receptors on the presynaptic neuron (upstream) and act to inhibit the release of certain neurotransmitters. For instance when CBD is used to treat epilepsy, it may reduce seizure activity by – in part – reducing the buildup of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter.

CB1 receptors are found throughout the brain, spinal cord, and other tissues. CB2 receptors are as well, but more of them are found in immune system tissues. CBD binding to CB1 receptors has a greater effect the central nervous system, and CBD binding to CB2 receptors has a greater effect on reducing inflammation.

The primary purpose of the ECS appears to be maintaining homeostasis, which it does by keeping neurotransmitter levels in check. Consuming CBD could be thought of as supplementing or increasing the activity of your body’s existing endocannabinoid system.

As an athlete you apply greater stress to your body, leading to pain and inflammation greater than what your endocannabinoid system can handle. Adding exogenous CBD may help this overloaded system get your neurotransmitters back under control and help athletes maintain homeostasis.

6 Benefits of CBD for Athletes

Relieve Pain

Studies have shown cannabis (mostly THC and far less CBD) is effective for reducing pain, including musculoskeletal pain from exercise, as well as stiff joints. (5) There is little research on CBD alone or a 1:1 ratio of THC to CBD. This is an area where anecdotal evidence and biological plausibility are the best we have until research catches up. Despite the lack of hard evidence, CBD does appear to relieve pain effectively for many athletes.

Alternative to NSAIDs

Athletes have been consuming over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen sodium (Aleve) for decades, but they may not be as safe as we once thought. Ultradistance athletes, in particular, are typically advised to avoid NSAIDs during long training sessions and events, due to increased risk of renal damage. But even if your workouts and events are short, long-term or frequent use of NSAIDs may increase your risk for heart attack and stroke.

Some athletes have found the pain relieving effect of CBD can reduce or eliminate their use of NSAIDS for exercise-related pain, with minimal side effects. According to The Essentials of Pain Medicine, Fourth Ed., “There are no documented deaths from cannabis or cannabinoid-based products. In a systemic review of studies of oral and oral-mucosal cannabis for various medical conditions, the majority of adverse events reports were considered non-serious (96.6%).”

Alternative to Opioids

According to the CDC, in 2016 opioids were involved in more than 42,000 deaths in the US. Opioid pain medications (i.e. morphine, codeine, oxycontin) are highly effective for pain management, but carry a significant risk of addiction and death by overdose. Cannabinoids are not as effective as opioids for relieving acute, high-intensity pain (5), but may be effective for long-term pain management – either alone or in conjunction with other medications – with far less risk of dependence or accidental death.

Reduce inflammation

A little bit of inflammation can be good for athletes and help stimulate positive training adaptations. Too much inflammation hinders recovery and hurts performance. There are CB2 receptors in both the brain and periphery, but they are more concentrated in immune tissues. Cannabinoids binding to CB2 receptors may have an anti-inflammatory effect by reducing cytokine (cell messengers) production. (8) In other words, CBD bound to CB2 receptors help dial down the response when your immune system sounds the alarm after hard workouts.

Settle your gut

Inflammation in the small and large intestines causes a lot of discomfort, and GI distress is one of the leading reasons endurance athletes drop out of races. CBD won’t solve stomach problems from dehydration and overheating (two major causes for athletes), but if you have underlying inflammation issues that contribute to gut problems during or after exercise, CBD may be effective for reducing your symptoms. There are CB1 and CB2 receptors in the colon. Colitis symptoms were inhibited (in mice) when CB1 and CB2 receptors were activated. (8)

Improve Sleep Quality

Getting more and better sleep is one of the most effective ways an athlete can achieve greater training gains. Anecdotally, athletes who consume CBD report greater ease going to sleep and a more restful night’s sleep. One potential reason for this could be CBD inhibiting the reuptake of adenosine. (7)

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) breaks down as your brain burns carbohydrate for energy, and adenosine gradually accumulates in the brain. More adenosine binding to neurons inhibits the release of neurotransmitters, slowing down brain activity, helping you feel calmer, and inducing sleep. Your body metabolizes adenosine as you sleep, and some time later, low concentrations of adenosine help you wake up and the process starts again.

By binding to same receptors adenosine would bind to, CBD may inhibit adenosine reuptake, which helps it accumulate more quickly and makes you feel sleepy sooner. CBD may also have a potent anti-anxiety effect for some people, which can help them get to sleep and have more restful sleep.

How to use CBD

New CBD-containing products hit the market every week. You can get ingest CBD through capsules, pills, or as an oil. You can inhale it as a vapor. It has been infused into sports drinks, recovery drinks, and all manner of edibles. There are also topical creams and lotions that contain CBD oil, as well as tinctures/drops that can be placed under your tongue.

How you consume CBD may affect how quickly you experience its effects. Capsules, oil, and edibles have to be digested, so they may take a bit longer. Topical creams are said to be quicker than edibles, and sublingual drops/tinctures are said to be the most rapid (besides inhalation via vaping).

CBD is available as “full spectrum” or “isolate”. Full spectrum CBD products contain CBD and other compounds found in the original plant, which could include small amounts of THC. If the CBD was derived from industrial hemp, the THC content of the original plant is legally supposed to be less than .3% (in Colorado). Products that contain CBD isolate should only contain CBD. CBD isolate and CBD produced from hemp would be a better choice, from an anti-doping standpoint, for anyone with zero-tolerance drug testing at work (i.e. pilots).

How much CBD to use

Here’s where things get tricky. There is no standard dose that delivers a consistent effect for all people. CBD products are not well regulated, so there can be inconsistencies in how much CBD is in a product. And depending on how you consume CBD (oil, gummy bear, cookie, recovery drink, tincture, vapor), it can be difficult to be precise. The most precise way to consume CBD is probably through capsules, or by calculating how many milligrams of CBD are in a given volume (i.e. 1 milliliter) of a tincture.

Companies that produce and sell CBD products recommend starting with a low dose and gradually increasing it based on the effects you experience.

Conclusion and Caveat

The emergence of cannabidiol could mark a major turning point in how athletes recover from training stress and manage both occasional and chronic pain. The giant, glaring caveat is that right now the use of CBD and the ways it’s being delivered are ahead of the science. There is a lot still to learn about how CBD works and how to best utilize it with athletes. That is not unusual, though. Back when carbohydrate-rich sports drinks first came out, it was clear they were helping improve performance even if the formulas weren’t perfect and the mechanisms weren’t all known.

Although it is not a banned substance for athletes in or out of competition, the potential risk for athletes is if the product you buy doesn’t contain what it says on the label. If it actually contains a significant amount of THC or other prohibited substance, you are at risk for a doping violation. As with anything else, it will be up to you to research and find a reputable brand.

With what we know at this point, CBD offers good potential benefits and few risks. If it improves recovery as a pain reliever, anti-inflammatory, and sleep aid, then it has great potential to improve athletic performance. And if it gets athletes to reduce consumption of NSAIDS, opioids, and prescription sleep aids, those are even bigger victories.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS


References & Resources

  1. Booz, George W. “Cannabidiol as an Emergent Therapeutic Strategy for Lessening the Impact of Inflammation on Oxidative Stress.” Free Radical Biology and Medicine, vol. 51, no. 5, 2011, pp. 1054–1061., doi:10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2011.01.007.
  2. Elman, Igor, and Scott E. Lukas. “Effects of Cortisol and Cocaine on Plasma Prolactin and Growth Hormone Levels in Cocaine-Dependent Volunteers.” Addictive Behaviors, vol. 30, no. 4, 2005, pp. 859–864., doi:10.1016/j.addbeh.2004.08.019.
  3. Filippis, Daniele De, et al. “Cannabidiol Reduces Intestinal Inflammation through the Control of Neuroimmune Axis.” PLoS ONE, vol. 6, no. 12, 2011, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0028159.
  4. Gorzalka, Boris B., et al. “Regulation of Endocannabinoid Signaling by Stress: Implications for Stress-Related Affective Disorders.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, vol. 32, no. 6, 2008, pp. 1152–1160., doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2008.03.004.
  5. Halawa, Omar I., et al. “Role of Cannabinoids in Pain Management.” Essentials of Pain Medicine, 2018, doi:10.1016/b978-0-323-40196-8.00056-5.
  6. Hammell, D.c., et al. “Transdermal Cannabidiol Reduces Inflammation and Pain-Related Behaviours in a Rat Model of Arthritis.” European Journal of Pain, vol. 20, no. 6, 2015, pp. 936–948., doi:10.1002/ejp.818.
  7. Murillo-Rodriguez, Eric, et al. “Anandamide Enhances Extracellular Levels of Adenosine and Induces Sleep: An In Vivo Microdialysis Study.” Sleep, vol. 26, no. 8, 2003, pp. 943–947., doi:10.1093/sleep/26.8.943.
  8. Nagarkatti, Prakash, et al. “Cannabinoids as Novel Anti-Inflammatory Drugs.” Future Medicinal Chemistry, vol. 1, no. 7, 2009, pp. 1333–1349., doi:10.4155/fmc.09.93.
  9. Pacher, P. “The Endocannabinoid System as an Emerging Target of Pharmacotherapy.” Pharmacological Reviews, vol. 58, no. 3, 2006, pp. 389–462., doi:10.1124/pr.58.3.2.
  10. Patricia H. Reggio, “ Endocannabinoid Binding to the Cannabinoid Receptors: What Is Known and What Remains Unknown”, Current Medicinal Chemistry (2010) 17: 1468. https://doi.org/10.2174/092986710790980005
  11. Xiong, Wei, et al. “Cannabinoids Suppress Inflammatory and Neuropathic Pain by Targeting α3 Glycine Receptors.” The Journal of Experimental Medicine, vol. 209, no. 6, 2012, pp. 1121–1134., doi:10.1084/jem.20120242.

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Comments 157

  1. Great blog! there are studies that show it helps people with chronic pain and find relief after using it. CBD oil is made by extracting CBD from the cannabis plant. CBD oil is helpful those who are looking for relief from pain and other symptoms without the mind-altering effects of marijuana or certain pharmaceutical drugs. cbd oil is vary helpful in many health problem also like body pain, anxiety, depression and many more.

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  3. I have heard from some wonderful forum members already who have tried CBD oil and some said it was beneficial, while others said they are glad they tried it but that it didn’t help them. I am not endorsing nor discouraging the use of it, I am simply wanting to explore how others have experienced using it to see if it might be something for me to consider in future, particularly for pain management.

  4. AWESOME article about CBD for athletes. Cbd has side effect when it have large amount of THC in it but if it have less amount of thc in it then it work as a medicine. Many studies show that it helps people with chronic pain and find relief after using it. CBD oil is made by extracting CBD from the cannabis plant. CBD oil is helpful those who are looking for relief from pain and other symptoms without the mind-altering effects of marijuana or certain pharmaceutical drugs. cbd oil is vary helpful in many health problem also like body pain, anxiety, depression and many more.

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  6. As soon as I saw MMA fighters using CBD as a pain reliever and also as an aid to recover faster, I knew it will become a big thing in the sports industry. And for a good reason.

    It doesn’t have severe side effects like kidney stones, liver issues, etc. And it is enjoyable to use. Who can say no to that?

    Love the in-depth article btw. You guys covered everything.

  7. Love how comprehensive this was! It’s so important that athletes have the facts. I like to use Hometown Hero’s CBD Roll-On when I experience discomfort during exercise. It’s really easy to apply and the cooling sensation of the menthol is amazing.

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    1. I’m a runner, normally do 4 marathons a year and been using CopperCBD.co gel capsules and tinctures daily for the past year. My recovery is better and I’m getting faster. It’s been amazing.

      I highly recommend any athlete try out adding cbd to their daily habits.

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  22. I’m impressed, I must say. Seldom do I encounter a blog that’s both equally educative and entertaining, and without a doubt, you have hit the nail on the head. But in my opinion Cannabis is a drug used to help overcome chronic pains so its better to use it as a medicine not as drug so one could become better. Actually marijuana does not work that way anyways but still if you are not in pain don’t use it.

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  34. Hi Raymond, while a full spectrum oil is considered best, it may have trace amounts of THC (0.3% or less is the legal accepted amount) which may show up on a drug test but, you can always get a CBD isolate with ZERO THC.

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  54. It’s helpful to know that CBD can be useful in improving the quality of sleep. My brother has been having trouble getting restful sleep and it’s been starting to hurt his performance. Maybe we’ll have to look and see whether CBD would be a viable option for him.

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  56. “Athletes have been consuming over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen sodium (Aleve) for decades, but they may not be as safe as we once thought.”

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  61. Hey Chris, thank you for sharing this.

    The chemical compound cannabidiol is not prohibited (Meaning it is legal!). The USADA actually mentions it helps athletes recover. However unless you get a 3rd party tested CBD brand – it is very difficult, if not impossible, to obtain a pure CBD extract or oil from the cannabis plant.

    1. Jose, there are many options out there but please do your homework. Always check for 3rd party lab reports.

      There are a few brands that athlete focused. I’d be honored if you checked us out, but whatever you do, never buy from Amazon, Groupon or for the love of God, any gas station.

  62. You have provided great information about Cbd products working on athletes. Through your blog, you have increased awareness about Cbd products and how these are beneficial for them. You have explained beautifully how it works on the human body. I didn’t know athletes are allowed to use this. I got to know about many new things through your content.

  63. Thanks for the insightful blog post about CBD, I’m into kickboxing and it sure does aid with recovery after a hard session on the pads! Does CBD show up in athletes drugs test?

    1. CBD will not show up on a drug test. However, if you are taking a full-spectrum CBD oil that also contains trace amounts of THC it could build up in the system and cause you to fail a UA. You could look at taking am isolate product and see how that helps you. An Isolate is just that, a product that only contains CBD and not the other cannabinoids. It should still provide you with some benefits without the fear of failing a random UA. I normally suggest an isolate only if someone is not able to take a chance.

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  70. How to sensibly buy LEGAL CBD oil? Because I got a letter saying customs have confiscated my package two times already and I’m pissed.

    1. Hey Natalie, there’s a difference between, cbd isolate, full spectrum and broad spectrum CBD products, not all are made the same. If CBD is made from hemp (not marijuana) in the USA Federal statutes (Farm acts 2014, 2018) a specific as to how it can be grown, they have not said how it can be sold. At this time it is up to each state’s statutes, public acts and city ordinances to determine that. Therefore, crossing state lines and countries by shipment breaks federal and state laws and many cases just selling period is a no no. There are Federal statutes that if the CBD is made from imported hemp it is considered a food supplement when done exactly to how the laws are written (no leaf or buds, only stalk and seed can be used) . There are three companies I’m aware of that import their hemp to produce the CBD and therefore is exempt from the statutes that indicate CBD is a drug. Hopefully soon all the federal statutes and will clear up matters and the states will comply accordingly. Such a shame. Look me up at to discuss further. Best Wishes! Rich

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  94. Hi Chris, great article. I know for a fact the when I train hard on the bike or in the gym, the use of CBD with THC significantly reduces pain, accelerates recovery and yes, I sleep soundly as an added benefit.

    Time Magazine did an extensive article mentioning some of the major points you addressed. Thanks again Chris.

  95. Chris,
    Thank you for sharing this concise article about this product. You consolidated allot of swirling information on CBD for the athletic community.
    Best Regards,
    N.J. USA

    1. This is a great article Chris and am very confident in your findings before having posted.

      Regarding Statins: Best to check with your doctor or one who knows how CBD interacts. For what I have understood is the cbd can effect how a drug metabolizes just the same as any other medication may interact. There are alternative meds or ways to use same meds but w/less dosage or time of day.

      Regarding Drug Testing Comment from Guy at Nuclear Plant: If the test is very sensitive, then the CBD will show. If it is not but very basic, use CBD that does not have THC. THC is the chemical compound they dont want you having in your system. I would still tell them you are considering CBD without THC and see what their policy is from there.

      Regarding Research: It is irritating to make blank statements without merit. There ARE A TON of studies of the benefits and dosing recommendations are already being made by doctors in states and even more so in states that marijuana and specialty hemp CBD is legal. Why? No government red tape hindering their studies and treatment of thousands of their patients. Just like synthetic based drugs everyone weight and absorption rates differ. That said, you need to be very careful on who you get your CBD from. Just READ and READ the most accurate study materials out there. Understandably, If you don’t have time to read the research journals from Harvard, Duke, University of Alabama, University of Pennsylvania, Mayo, Johns Hopkins and NIH, etc, look up and read report : “The Health Effects of Cannabis & Cannabinoids” from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Its about 500 pages but has it in chapters of usage.

  96. Chris, thanks for posting. I’m eager to see what the science tells us as more reproducible, solid studies are done. And, (hopefully) purity and testing standards are established for CBD oil. I would love to have access to a supplement that helps me sleep more deeply and recover faster, without negative side effects.

  97. Would like to try this for all the benefits , but I work in a nuclear facility with random drug testing and the chance of popping positive is not a chance I am willing to take.

    1. Hi Raymond, while a full spectrum oil is considered best, it may have trace amounts of THC (0.3% or less is the legal accepted amount) which may show up on a drug test but, you can always get a CBD isolate with ZERO THC. I had the same concerns so, I tried a brand that offers a THC free isolate and I had no issues w/ my drug test for work. They have a free trial of the thc free oil at mycbdtrial.com if you wanna check it out. It costs like 11 bucks for shipping and you get like 5 samples and 2 trial size bottles, lasted me about 2 weeks and it works pretty good. I like it so, I just ordered a full bottle.

  98. Thanks Chris,
    For covering this important & now popular topic. I think Cannabis & hemp are improving the lives of countless folks, especially now that legalization continues.
    I’ve been consuming cannabis for many years, (only organic, locally sources from a reputable dispensary here in Calif.), and find many of the benefits you’ve described here.

    Resources like Green Med info, Green Flower & The Marijuana Show are all good sources of info for those wanting to learn more, and there’s tons of it, & much more is being done.
    I realize the article address’ CBD, and your note regarding “whole plant”, (otherwise known as the entourage effect has been proven the best, most effective ways of consuming either CBD or cannabis.
    cheers, scott

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