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What Cannabidiol (CBD) Can Do for Athletes

By Sherry Christiansen

Medically reviewed by Dr. George Gavrilos, Dr. Steven Salzman

Image of diverse athletes on track running

Key Takeaways

  1. There are numerous potential benefits that cannabidiol (CBD) can provide for athletes.
  2. The World Anti-Doping Agency has removed CBD from its list of prohibited substances for athletes.
  3. Preliminary studies show health benefits from CBD that could be advantageous for athletes. 
  4. While there is a need for more, controlled studies to clarify CBD’s benefits for athletes, many of the preclinical studies show promise of its benefits for sports endurance, recovery, and performance. 
  5. Research studies have shown that CBD may help improve athletic performance by reducing inflammation and pain, alleviating sports anxiety, increasing physical endurance, controlling thermoregulation, and more.

What Cannabidiol (CBD) Can Do for Athletes

Using cannabis to enhance a person’s athletic ability may seem like an oxymoron. The perception of cannabinoids, such as delta-9- tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), comes from a very old stigma. Today, we know that cannabinoids have many benefits. One type of cannabinoid, cannabidiol (CBD), can provide health benefits without the psychoactive component the cannabis plant is often associated with, called THC. Cannabidiol (CBD), mimics the body’s natural way of healing itself and maintaining balance via the endocannabinoid system (ECS). CBD has shown promise in numerous preliminary research studies for its effectiveness in treating various maladies. These include sports-related conditions such as inflammation, muscle, and joint pain. 1 Learn more about the ECS here.

The World Doping Agency has taken CBD off its list of prohibited substances for athletes.

Physical Challenges for Athletes

There are many challenges that athletes face when training to attain their ultimate level of endurance and performance. Some of the most common physical setbacks include: 2

  • Muscle damage (i.e., structural protein disruption in muscle fibers)- from repeated muscle contractions and tissue vibrations
  • Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
  • Tissue inflammation and sore muscles-as a result of muscle damage
  • Perceived fatigue
  • Changes in muscle damage indicators in the blood (i.e., creatinine kinase and inflammatory biomarkers such as interleukin-6 and C-reactive protein levels)

These exercise-induced symptoms often lead to: 2

  • A reduction in muscle force
  • A disturbed sense of joint position
  • Extended recovery periods
  • An increased risk of sports-related injuries

It’s essential for the athlete to manage muscle damage, alleviate DOMS, inflammation, and fatigue to lower the risk of injury and reach optimal levels of performance. 2

How do Athletes Reach Maximum Performance?

In the past 30 years, many effective training approaches for athletes have been identified in scientific studies; these strategies aim to improve physical/sports performance.

There is much more to reaching maximum athletic performance than just training. Rather, an athlete, in prime condition must employ other strategies such as a method of post-training recovery, a healthy diet, including supplements that provide the optimal fuel for the body, adequate rest and sleep, and more. Without an effective, holistic strategy, athletes may fall victim to maladaptation to amassed stressors caused by training load. 2 

How Cannabidiol (CBD) Can Help Sports Performance

CBD has over 100 compounds, called cannabinoids that are similar to the body’s natural substances called endocannabinoids. Both CBD and THC are cannabinoids, but it’s important to note that although both compounds originate from the same plant genus Cannabis, hemp-based cannabis does not have enough of the psychoactive delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to cause a person to get high. In fact, CBD from the Cannabis sativa/hemp plant is only comprised of 0.3% THC. CBD has been studied for its many potential health and wellness benefits, including those that support athletic performance.

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There are several ways that CBD is thought to help improve performance for athletes. With its anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, and analgesic properties, CBD has the potential to literally be a game-changer for many athletes. A 2020 review analyzed animal studies and clinical CBD trials in non-athlete populations. The study authors found that CBD may promote physiological, biochemical, and psychological effects potentially beneficial to athletes. 1

Reduced Inflammation and Pain

One of the key findings of a 2020 review study is that CBD could help alleviate inflammatory pain associated with tissue damage and neuropathic pain caused by nerve damage or irritation. This could signal an important advantage for endurance athletes because repetitive, long-distance workouts can provoke inflammation and irritation in peripheral nerves. 1 Learn more about CBD’s effect on inflammation here.

Learn more about CBD and athletic recovery here.

Improved Mitochondrial Function 


Physical endurance has long been linked to the body’s ability to produce energy in the mitochondria. The mitochondria are the powerhouses located in muscle cells. The more mitochondria a person has, the longer the person can exert themselves. Athletic training increases the number of mitochondria in a person’s muscles. This is the reason those in top physical condition are able to run or perform faster, longer and more efficiently than non-athletes.3

Initial study data has shown that CBD may improve mitochondrial function; animal studies have shown an increase in mitochondrial complexes—such as those that convert food into energy in the cells—in various tissues, like the myocardium. These effects on the mitochondria may increase performance by intensifying energy metabolism during a workout. 1

Thermoregulation

During exercise, heat loss plays an important role in the ability of the body to maintain homeostasis. Natural treatments that impact core temperature have a possibility of impacting exercise performance.1

A 2017 animal study examined the effect of CBD on core temperature in rats. The study found that vaporized CBD lowered the rodents’ core temperature by 1 degree C.4 A 2020 study review revealed that higher doses of exogenous cannabinoid administration resulted in hypothermia and lower doses were more likely to cause hyperthermia. 1

Dietary Intake 

Athletes put their bodies through vigorous physical demands and stress on an ongoing basis. Adequate nutrition intake supports optimal athletic performance. Appetite and dietary choices are particularly important before and after the athlete’s exercise periods; this is the time when nutrient provision is most critical. The overall daily nutritional intake can greatly influence performance for athletes. 5 The daily caloric intake needs of an athlete can be from 2,000 to 5,000 calories, or more, depending on many factors such as age, weight, level of activity, and more. Olympic athletes may consume up to 8,000 calories before a major competition. 6 A healthy appetite is key to getting adequate food intake to meet nutritional needs.

Although much of the research study conclusions on CBD’s effect on appetite is mixed, one report, published by the journal Epilepsy & Behavior, found that in pediatric patients with seizure disorders, 30% of the parents reported that CBD significantly increased appetite. 7

Sports Performance Anxiety (SPA)

Sports performance anxiety (SPA) is a common phenomenon, well-known to many athletes; it can adversely affect an athlete’s performance. SPA can impact an athlete in two different ways, both directly and indirectly. The direct aspect of the impairment can cause anxiety and the indirect effect can involve loss of sleep, an increase in energy expenditure, a decrease in nutritional intake, and more. The preferred treatment for SPA is cognitive behavioral therapy. Some cases of SPA may respond better to a combination of different types of treatment including pharmaceutical and psychological treatment. 8

There have been several small clinical trials to evaluate CBD’s impact on non-athletes with symptoms of anxiety, both in healthy adults as well as in people with social anxiety disorder. Several studies have found CBD to have an anxiolytic (anxiety reducing) effect on healthy study participants as well as those with social anxiety disorder at dosages of 300 to 600 mg. 1 Learn more about CBD and anxiety here. 

An older study from 1993, suggested that 300 mg of CBD was comparable to an anti-anxiolytic drug called ipsapirone on people with anxiety before speaking in public.9

Sleep

It’s no secret that getting adequate sleep at night is one of many important factors in ensuring an athlete is in peak condition. There is substantial evidence from research studies showing that CBD helps improve a person’s sleep. Cannabinoids, such as CBD, are thought to help improve the sleep-wake cycle, similar to how the body’s natural endocannabinoid system works to induce sleepiness. Learn more about CBD and sleep here.  

Resources

  1. McCartney D, Benson MJ, Desbrow B, Irwin C, Suraev A, McGregor IS. Cannabidiol and sports performance: a narrative review of relevant evidence and recommendations for future research. Sports Med – Open. 2020;6(1):27. doi: 10.1186/s40798-020-00251-0  https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-020-00251-0
  2. Dupuy O, Douzi W, Theurot D, Bosquet L, Dugué B. An evidence-based approach for choosing post-exercise recovery techniques to reduce markers of muscle damage, soreness, fatigue, and inflammation: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Front Physiol. 2018;9:403. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2018.00403 https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403  
  3. Science Daily. New research on the muscles of elite athletes: When quality is better than quantity. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/11/161102132208.htm  Published November 2, 2016.
  4. Jadoon K, Tan G, O’Sullivan S. A single dose of cannabidiol reduces blood pressure in healthy volunteers in a randomized crossover study. JCI Insight. 2017;2(12):e93760. doi: 10.1172/jci.insight.93760 https://doi.org/10.1172/jci.insight.93760
  5. Thomas D, Erdman K, Burke L. American College of Sports Medicine joint position Statement: Nutrition and athletic performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016;48(3):543–568. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000000852  doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000000852
  6. NPR. How Many Calories Do Olympic Athletes Need? https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/07/24/157317262/how-many-calories-do-olympic-athletes-need-it-depends  updated August 5, 2016.
  7. Hussain SA, Zhou R, Jacobson C, et al. Perceived efficacy of cannabidiol-enriched cannabis extracts for treatment of pediatric epilepsy: A potential role for infantile spasms and Lennox–Gastaut syndrome. Epilepsy & Behavior. 2015;47:138-141. doi: 10.1016/j.yebeh.2015.04.009 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yebeh.2015.04.009 
  8. Patel D, Omar H, Terry M. Sport-related performance anxiety in young female athletes. J Pediatr Adolesc Gynecol. 2010;23(6):325–335 doi: 10.1016/j.jpag.2010.04.004 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpag.2010.04.004 
  9. Zuardi A, Cosme R, Graeff F, Guimaraes F. Effects of ipsapirone and cannabidiol on human experimental anxiety. J Psychopharmacol. 1993;7(1S):82–88. doi: 10.1177/026988119300700112  https://doi.org/10.1177/026988119300700112    
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