By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS
Sleep and recovery are two aspects of training that have increased in importance over the past six weeks. For some athletes, working from home and stay at home orders have opened up opportunities to train more than before. For others, the disruptions to personal and professional responsibilities eroded what training time they previously had. And regardless of whether athletes have been training more or less, nearly everyone has been coping with heightened stress from dual threats to their health and livelihoods. About a year ago I had a training-related experience that changed my personal views on the effectiveness of CBD for sleep and recovery, and even through the source of stress has shifted, I believe it has been beneficial during the current crisis.
What is CBD?
To begin with, cannabinoids already exist in your body. Scientists have identified what they call the endocannabinoid system (ECS) that modulates the activity of neurons and can be influenced by phytocannabinoids (derived from plants). Cannabidiol (CBD) is a phytocannabinoid found naturally in the cannabis plant. Unlike THC, which is also found in cannabis, CBD is not psychoactive.
Within your nervous system, two endocannabinoids (2-AG and AEA) are produced in postsynaptic neurons (downstream) and released into the synapse. They bind to CB1 receptors on the presynaptic neuron (upstream) and act to inhibit the release of certain neurotransmitters.
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. People who are under greater stress have increased inflammation and pain signaling, and it is thought that CBD may help reduce inflammation and attenuate that increased neural activity.
My Story with CBD
While I had done plenty of research on the potential for CBD to alleviate pain, improve recovery, and improve sleep quality for athletes, I didn’t have that much personal experience with it prior to 2019. My sleep and recovery habits had been working fine for me and I didn’t have much need for pain relief, so my occasional trials of product samples didn’t seem to make much difference. That changed during the 2019 Tour of California Race Experience.
For 10 years of the years that the Amgen Tour of California was held, a team of CTS amateur riders and coaches rode the entire course, starting each stage several hours before the pro peloton. It was always a huge challenge, but 2019 was the most difficult of all. The individual stages were longer than average, mostly 100+ miles. There were long transfers between stage finishes and the next morning’s stage starts. And there was no mid-race time trial, which for our group functioned as a much-needed break from the long stages.
The group of riders in our small peloton was the best part of the experience, and we developed strong bonds that can only be created by working together to overcome great challenges. In 2019, the team included both NBA Hall of Fame legend Bill Walton and Andre Kajlich, the first and only handcycle athlete to finish the 3000-mile Race Across America solo. Both men are inspirational in their own ways, as well as being total badasses.
The first two stages of the 2019 ATOC were long and difficult, and for a variety of reasons I found I also wasn’t sleeping well on that trip. Stage 3 was my opportunity to ride with Bill, which is always one of my top rides for the year – and the longest. Bill is the most genuinely happy individual I have ever met. His outlook on life is overwhelmingly positive and you cannot spend time with him without walking away a better person for the experience. He loves to ride his bike and will ride all day, through virtually any conditions. He is steady and smart on the bike but the long days at the ATOC typically meant about 12 hours from start to finish.
To optimally support athletes during the ATOC experiences, our coaches rotated between groups or riders. Some days you were higher power days to set pace in the front group. Other days were longer and more moderate in the middle groups. It was a great way to vary the effort required and ensure athletes had opportunities to ride with different coaches, and gave coaches an opportunity to spend a day talking with Bill.
By the end of Stage 3 I was in trouble. The first two stages had been hard, I hadn’t slept well since the beginning of the trip, Bill and I rode for 12 hours on Stage 3, and I was scheduled to ride in the fastest group on Stage 4. Andre could see the fatigue on my face when we met before dinner, and suggested a CBD tincture. I hadn’t been impressed by CBD in the past, but I also knew I experienced no ill effects from it, so I decided to give it another shot.
Sleep and Recovery
That night, about 20 minutes before turning out the light I put several drops of the CBD tincture under my tongue, held them there for about 30 seconds, and swallowed. I went to sleep easily, but what was really different from previous nights was that I stayed asleep. I woke up refreshed and feeling more rested than I had all week, and decided not to read too much into it. I knew it could have been a placebo effect, or that I was just thoroughly exhausted, or a combination of other factors, but I learned early in my cycling career that when you’re feeling good, don’t ask too many questions; just go with it. So, I did.
I rode well that day with the front group, not superhuman by any stretch, but better than I anticipated given the efforts over the previous three days. That night and the rest of the trip I continued using the CBD tincture before bed, and experienced similar results in terms of quality sleep and performance on the bike. Not miraculous results, but substantial enough to convince me the CBD oil was making a difference.
My decision to use CBD was cemented since I’ve been able to obtain products made entirely from industrial hemp. I personally have no problem with the medical or recreational consumption of THC, and the World Antidoping Agency and US Antidoping Agency have clarified their rules such that the threshold for a positive test for THC is high enough (no pun intended) that it minimizes the risk of inadvertently testing positive. Even so, I don’t feel right using products produced from marijuana and/or designed to deliver appreciable amounts of THC (hemp-derived CBD products only contain trace amounts of THC).