Guide to CBD for Athletes

Athleticism doesn’t just take place on the court or field. Maintaining peak athletic performance is a round-the-clock endeavor. Outside of practice, there are all sorts of things athletes do to enhance performance and hasten muscle recovery: drinking protein shakes, staying hydrated, eating the right foods, sleeping well, stretching and massage. 

Now, there’s one more you can add to the list: CBD oil.

CBD has caught on among anybody and everybody. This all-natural compound boasts benefits as wide-ranging as arthritis and epilepsy relief to nausea and stress reduction. For athletes, CBD’s anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties are especially intriguing.

But given CBD’s relatively new fame, and the strict drug testing policies of the sports world, many athletes are reasonably concerned about what CBD is, whether it can truly boost muscle recovery and athletic performance, and if it’s safe and legal to use. In this guide, we answer all those questions and more.

What Is CBD Oil?

CBD is short for cannabidiol, one of over a hundred chemical compounds found in cannabis, and more specifically in the hemp strain. CBD oil is the oily extract that’s extracted from the hemp plant and ultimately used  to create CBD oils you can purchase online and in stores.

Because they both come from cannabis, CBD and THC often get confused. However, they’re quite different. While they’re both cannabinoids, they offer different health benefits. They’re also found in different parts and strains of the cannabis plant: CBD exists in higher concentrations in hemp, while THC is higher in marijuana. 

Their most important distinction is this: THC is psychoactive, and CBD is not. That’s why CBD has become so popular. CBD may offer many health benefits, just like medical marijuana—but without the high.

CBD provides these benefits primarily through its interaction with your body’s endocannabinoid system. 

What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

If something about “endocannabinoid” sounds familiar, you’re right: this bodily system was actually discovered after cannabinoids, which is why it’s named after them! 

The endocannabinoid system serves an important function: keeping your body in a state of healthy balance. It acts like a regulator, dispatching endocannabinoids (neurotransmitters that share a similar structure with cannabinoids found in nature, like CBD and THC) to receptors located throughout your central and peripheral nervous systems. When endocannabinoids bind to these receptors, it creates an interaction that brings a particular biological function back into balance. 

Some of the biological functions the endocannabinoid system regulates include your:

  • Appetite
  • Temperature
  • Immune function
  • Inflammation
  • Pain and pleasure response
  • Motor control
  • Mood
  • Memory
  • Sleep

When you introduce external cannabinoids like CBD into your body—whether eaten, inhaled, or applied to the skin—you effectively give your body a boost of extra cannabinoids. This may help your endocannabinoid system do a better job at regulating any functions that are imbalanced. For athletes, who often deal with inflammation and pain, CBD oil may improve their body’s ability to reduce inflammation, leading to faster recovery and alleviating symptoms of pain along the way.

Because the endocannabinoid system is involved in so many functions, there’s evidence that CBD oil can be effective at treating multiple imbalances at once. For instance, a study found that CBD oil reduced fatigue, pain, and spasticity among patients with multiple sclerosis, significantly improving their mobility. 

What Are the Benefits of CBD for Athletes?

For a long time, people have been using cannabis products like CBD oil and marijuana to help them cope with pain, anxiety, insomnia, and more—regardless of whether it was legal. Much of the reports of their effectiveness was purely anecdotal. Now, thanks to CBD oil’s newly legal status, scientists are open to research CBD oil without obstacles, and they have been.

Thus far, the research indicates that CBD holds many potential benefits for athletic recovery and performance. As an anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain-reliever), CBD oil may have potential for reducing both the pain and originating inflammation caused by tiny muscle tears (the ones responsible for soreness after an intense workout). It can be a safer alternative to medications like opioids and NSAIDs, which athletes are prone to use for pain management. Finally, CBD oil may relieve stress, anxiety, and related sleep issues.

CBD May Reduce Inflammation and Pain

One of the biggest obstacles facing athletes is staying competitive, despite the pain from injury or inflammation. While there aren’t any studies observing CBD among athletes, there is a large body of research supporting its usefulness in alleviating symptoms for rats and humans with chronic pain.

In a 2016 study, researchers applied a topical CBD gel to the joints of arthritic rats. Within just four days, the swelling around their joints reduced, and the rats were better able to move their paws freely. The rats also displayed less pain. 

study shows cbd oil reduces joint inflammation and pain

An earlier rat model, from 2004, produced similar results. Instead of a topical gel, the researchers administered an oral CBD solution to the rats. Over the course of 3 days, inflammation in the rats’ paws significantly decreased. Other rat models have demonstrated that CBD can significantly reduce other types of pain, such as chronic nerve pain.

The good news is that human studies mimic the findings of the animal ones. One study found that an oral spray significantly reduced pain among a group of rheumatoid arthritis patients, both when they were moving and when they were at rest.

CBD May Be a Safer Alternative to NSAIDs and Opioids 

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are medications you can purchase over-the-counter to relieve inflammation and pain. Well-known NSAIDs include Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen sodium). For most people, these drugs are a safe and effective option. The problem develops when they’re used in high amounts that exceed the daily maximum. 

Unfortunately, as many as 9 percent of people do just that. Worse, because these drugs are not banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency or other organizations (since they’re generally considered benign), athletes have a tendency to abuse them under a mistaken belief that they can enhance their performance. Specifically, athletes may use them before games to prevent potential pain and inflammation before it even occurs. When used in this way, the risk for gastrointestinal and cardiovascular side effects, including peptic ulcers, is high. 

Replacing these with CBD oil can be a safer choice for these athletes. By the same token, CBD oil can be a significantly safer alternative to opioids, which are habit-forming and highly addictive. 

Athletes are at high risk for opioid abuse, often being prescribed them to cope with injuries they endure over the course of the careers. One study found that just over half of NFL players were prescribed opioids, and nearly three-quarters of those players reported misusing the opioids. Studies indicate high school athletes may be especially vulnerable for opioid addiction, as the adolescent brain is still developing.

CBD oil is much safer than opioids, and may be just as effective. In fact, one study found that CBD was more effective at relieving pain for a group of advanced cancer patients than opioids. 

Even more promising, CBD oil does not present a risk of addiction. It actually inhibits the brain’s drug-seeking response. For this reason, CBD is being tested as an aid for addiction recovery. Separate studies found it reduced cravings for both heroin and cigarettes. Plus, unlike other drugs, you don’t develop a tolerance for CBD. Once you find an effective dose of CBD oil, you can stick with it to achieve the same results. 

CBD May Reduce Anxiety and Stress

Currently, the research on CBD oil and anxiety has mostly focused on social anxiety disorders and PTSD. There hasn’t been much research on the efficacy of CBD oil for temporary anxieties. However, the findings still indicate that CBD oil, in tandem with the body’s endocannabinoid system, may change the brain’s anxiety response.

Even if you don’t have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, it’s normal to feel some anxiety before game day or a sporting event. The research suggests CBD oil may help you calm your nerves and stay focused.

In a study of individuals with social anxiety disorder, participants with a fear of public speaking were subjected to a simulated public speaking test. Those who received a high dose of CBD (600mg) felt significantly more comfortable during the test, and also reported that they felt less cognitive impairment

In animal studies, CBD appears to activate 5-HT1A receptors in the brain, an interaction that results in an antidepressant-like effect. CBD has also been shown to reduce cortisol levels, the hormone that produces stress.

CBD May Improve Sleep

Sleep problems often go hand in hand with anxiety and stress. Fortunately, the research suggests CBD oil can help there, too. 

For example, one study of patients with rheumatoid arthritis reported that after a 5-week treatment, they found it easier to move, moved with less pain, and enjoyed better sleep quality. Another study found that within a month of treatment, both sleep and anxiety scores improved among a group of patients:

cbd oil improves sleep and reduces anxiety in study

Getting enough sleep is nonelective for athletes. Your body uses sleep to repair your bones and muscle tissue from the strain you put them through during practice and games. To perform optimally, you need to sleep optimally. Sleep deprivation, whether it’s caused by the occasional late night or ongoing insomnia, results in reduced reaction time and increased risk of injury

Improved sleep can also be a side effect of resolving some of the other issues athletes commonly experience. If you’re feeling less pain, it will be easier to find a comfortable position to sleep in, and to relax sufficiently to sleep deeply. If you feel less stressed, you’ll find it easier to fall asleep as well. 

Is CBD Safe for Athletes?

Yes, for people in good health, CBD oil is considered extremely safe. This is yet another one of its many benefits. CBD’s safety persists even when taken chronically and in high doses up to 1,500mg per day

However, CBD is not recommended for individuals taking other medications, pregnant and breastfeeding women, or children. Evidence suggests that CBD oil may impact the liver’s ability to metabolize other drugs (much like grapefruit). If you are taking other medication, whether prescription or over-the-counter, always speak to your doctor first to ensure CBD oil won’t cause any negative drug interactions. As for children and pregnant women, not enough research has been done in these populations for clinicians to feel comfortable recommending CBD to them.

When side effects do occur with CBD, they typically include: 

  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • Changes in appetite or weight

If you notice any of the following symptoms after taking CBD oil, stop using the CBD product and consult your doctor. Sometimes, the solution may be as simple as adjusting your dose.

Remember, CBD oil is by no means a cure-all, so don’t skimp out on your current recovery routine. A mix of rest and active recovery, along with stretching, massage, and icing can all help you overcome muscle aches and pains.

How Athletes Can Use CBD Oil for Recovery and Relief 

Don’t let the oil in “CBD oil” confuse you. CBD oil is available in a variety of products. The oil simply refers to the oily hemp extract, which is then mixed with a base oil to create a tincture, or infused into other products like CBD creams, vape oils, edibles, and even haircare. 

The right CBD product for you depends on your goals and personal preference:

  • For the quickest relief, CBD vape oils are your best option. When inhaled through a vaporizer, CBD directly enters the bloodstream through the lungs within minutes, allowing for near-immediate, whole body relief. However, when inhaled, the effects of CBD wear off within a few hours, while other methods are longer-lasting.
  • For targeted relief, such as pain in specific muscle groups, many athletes opt for CBD topicals. These CBD salves, creams, and roll-ons are rubbed into the skin of a targeted area, where the CBD engages local cannabinoid receptors through the skin. These may help reduce inflammation and pain in the targeted area, but because the CBD never enters the bloodstream, it can’t engage cannabinoid receptors in the brain and relieve other issues (like anxiety). CBD topicals also present the most confusion around dosing. The total amount of CBD will be stated on the bottle, but it’s hard to know how much is included with each swipe of your finger. Some CBD topicals include menthol as an active ingredient for extra cooling relief. 
  • For the most precise dosing, CBD tinctures and capsules are better choices. Tinctures are measured out using the included dropper, and then applied and held under the tongue for 30 to 60 seconds before swallowing. There, they enter the bloodstream through the sublingual gland, providing full-body relief fairly quickly. CBD capsules are the lowest-maintenance option, containing an exact amount of CBD in each capsule. You can swallow these easily like a daily vitamin, but they can take up to 90 minutes to start working, since the CBD has to travel through your digestive system before it makes it to your bloodstream.

Types of CBD Products for Athletes

Below we review the pros and cons of these different CBD products for athletes.

Type of reliefProsCons 
Effects last several hours
Imprecise dosing
Vape OilsWhole-bodyImmediate effectsImprecise dosing
Effects only last a few hours
TincturesWhole-bodyPrecise dosing
Effects last several hours
Unusual application
CapsulesWhole-body Precise dosing
Effects last several hours

Always follow the product instructions for any CBD oil you buy. Depending on the type of CBD product you’re using, these instructions will vary. Those using CBD tinctures are often advised to hold the tincture under their tongue for up to 60 seconds before swallowing. CBD topicals can be more effective when you clean and dry the skin first, before applying liberally as you massage the product deeply into the skin.

CBD products come in a range of strengths. Depending on the severity of your condition, you may want to go with a higher dose—particularly if you are using a topical. These require liberal, generous application to be effective, so you may want to go for a 300mg or 500mg salve versus a 100mg one. 

CBD Oil Dosage for Athletes

Figuring out your ideal dosage of CBD is arguably the trickiest part to using CBD oil. Because this therapy is so new, and the research is still developing, there are no official guidelines or dosing recommendations. Plus, much of the research to-date has either involved rats, or people who require much higher doses for severe conditions like epilepsy or cancer

What we do have are anecdotal guidelines to work from. For pain, many people find a dose between 1 to 6 milligrams of CBD, for every 10 pounds of your body weight, to be effective. So, if you are experiencing mild pain and weigh 160 pounds, you might start on the bottom end of that spectrum, with a dose between 16mg to 32mg. 

Generally, the best advice is to start with the lowest recommended dose for your body weight, and increase gradually from there. Once you find a dose that works, you can stick with it, but don’t be discouraged if you find it takes some trial and error to land on that “right” dose. That’s normal. 

Is CBD Oil Legal for Athletes?

Yes, CBD oil is legal to use anywhere within the United States, as long as it’s extracted from hemp. If you live in a state where marijuana has been legalized, CBD oils extracted from marijuana may also be legal.

A large part of the legal confusion surrounding CBD is that up until very recently, it was lumped in with THC and marijuana and defined as a schedule I drug under “cannabis.” In December 2018, when the U.S. government passed the 2018 Farm Bill, that all changed. The 2018 Farm Bill removed CBD and hemp (the strain of cannabis that CBD is extracted from) from that definition, and legalized hemp at a federal level nationwide. Once hemp was legal, so was any CBD oil sourced from it—provided it contained no more than 0.3% THC.

That last part is important. Fortunately, by its nature, hemp always contains 0.3% THC or less. It’s in large part due to this low concentration of psychoactive THC, and its high concentration of CBD, that makes hemp the de facto plant for extracting CBD oil. 

However, while much less common, some CBD oils can be extracted from marijuana. When you’re out searching for CBD oil, just make sure any products you buy are extracted from hemp, and not marijuana.

Sports Leagues Drug Policies and CBD

CBD may be legal at a federal level, but sports leagues have their own rules. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) does not include CBD in their Prohibited List (although THC, marijuana, and other cannabis products are included, again reiterating the importance of confirming your CBD oil is sourced from hemp and not marijuana). 

The WADA took action to remove CBD from their list. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), on the other hand, does not mention CBD in theirs, although they do ban cannabinoids, including “marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), synthetic cannabinoids.” While there’s some indication they’re moving towards adopting a policy similar to WADA’s, the NCAA’s 2019-2020 policy still includes the following statement: 

“Any substance chemically/pharmacologically related to all classes listed above and with no current approval by any governmental regulatory health authority for human therapeutic use (e.g., drugs under preclinical or clinical development or discontinued, designer drugs, substances approved only for veterinary use) is also banned.” 

This leaves CBD’s status within the NCAA unclear. It could be considered related to THC and other banned cannabinoid substances, and therefore banned. Or, the catch-all statement could be interpreted as saying that only CBD oils like Epidiolex (the only drug containing CBD currently approved by the FDA, which is prescribed for childhood epilepsy) are allowed.

Currently, cannabis products are banned in the NFL, the NBA, and other professional sports organizations. However, there’s a rising movement among players to change these rules. Many professional and retired athletes are prominent advocates of CBD oil, from tennis great Julie Anthony to the NBA’s Al Harrington. Some have even launched their own CBD brands, like former boxing heavyweight champ, while others have teamed up to invest in cannabis research, like Tatum Bell  and other former NFL players. 

Mainly, these professional athletes are advocating for medical marijuana and other cannabis products to be used for pain relief instead of opioids. The research is on their side: studies indicate that combining the neuroprotective antioxidant effects of CBD and THC can be “extremely helpful” in treating CTE symptoms like headache, nausea, insomnia, dizziness, substance abuse, agitation, and psychosis. CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is a serious problem in the NFL. In autopsies of over 200 deceased NFL players, it was detected in 87 percent.

Will CBD Show Up on a Drug Test?

While you wait for sports leagues to catch up with the federal government, you may be wondering if CBD oil can show up on a drug test. Here’s what athletes subject to periodic drug testing need to know.

It is possible CBD oil can cause a false positive on a drug test for marijuana. The chances are low, but it can happen. Drug tests for marijuana screen for THC, not CBD. However, since legally, CBD oils can contain up to 0.3% THC, it’s possible for them to produce a false positive drug test result. 

The biggest risk here is if you use a CBD oil that was extracted from marijuana, and therefore includes more THC than 0.3%. Besides using a CBD oil extracted from hemp, additional steps you can take to reduce your risk of a false positive test result include:

  • Using CBD isolate products. When you shop for CBD products, you’ll see terms like full-spectrum, isolate, or THC-free on the label. Full-spectrum CBD products contain a high concentration of CBD, along with other naturally occurring cannabinoids, including CBG, CBC, CBN, and up to 0.3% THC. Some research suggests that a richer cannabinoid profile may enhance the effectiveness of CBD oil, but if you’re worried about drug testing, you may feel more at ease using a CBD isolate product. These are 100% THC-free, as the CBD extract undergoes additional processing to remove any other cannabinoids besides CBD from the product. These are 99% pure CBD, and nothing else.
  • Avoiding CBD oil in the days before your drug test. If you choose to use full-spectrum CBD oils, you can further reduce your risk of a false positive drug test by stopping use seven days before your test. Unless you ingest THC on a heavy, chronic basis, it metabolizes for most people within a few days.
  • Only purchasing from well-known CBD brands. Currently, CBD oil isn’t regulated by the FDA. That means brands good and bad can sell products and claim they have CBD in them. We’ll review more tips for safely buying CBD in the next section, but purchasing from a well-known brand is a smart way to ensure that the CBD oil you’re using is safe and effective. A good CBD brand is one that tends to have lots of independent online reviews, partners with a third-party lab to test their oils and shares those results with consumers, and operates a website that details their sourcing and production methods.

Finding the Best CBD Products for Athletes: Buyer’s Guide

Ready to try CBD oil? Here’s how to evaluate a product for safety and efficacy.

1. Buy Direct, and Avoid Amazon. 

Currently, Amazon prohibits the sale of CBD oil. You’ll still get results if you search for it, but know that anything you can purchase on there is actually hemp seed oil, and not hemp oil. While great for your skin and heart health, hemp seed oil contains virtually no CBD. 

Instead, opt to buy direct from the manufacturer’s website (or from one of their retail partners). Often, this is the best way to secure the best price, and ensure you get what you paid for.

2. Choose a Brand Uses a Third-Party Lab. 

Not all CBD brands are created equal. Because the industry is currently unregulated, you need to find a brand you can trust. Look for those who advertise that they use third-party testing. This means they partner with an unbiased, independent lab to test their oils for safety and purity. The lab will both confirm the cannabinoid content of the oil (so you know that what the product label says is actually true) and confirm that there are no harmful substances, heavy metals, bacteria, or other toxins present. 

Additionally, the brand should make these third-party lab reports, called Certificates of Analysis, available to consumers, either on their website or by request.

One study found that 30 percent of CBD oils sold online were inaccurately labeled regarding the concentration of CBD. Knowing that you can rely on the advertised concentration is essential for giving yourself the appropriate dose. 

3. Review their Sourcing and Extraction Methods.

Additional indicators of quality include where the brand sources their hemp, and how they extract their CBD. Look for brands who partner with local hemp farms, ideally ones who participate in their state’s industrial hemp pilot programs. This speaks to a level of regulation and oversight. 

As for the extraction method, CO2 and ethanol are the ones to look for. CO2 produces more concentrated extracts, but either method is safe and effective.

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