As an athlete, your physical and mental health are critical in maintaining good form. Athletes are always exploring different "bio-hacks" to develop and preserve peak performance.
In the last few years, cannabidiol (CBD) has become a popular ingredient in the health and wellness sector. Famous athletes like soccer player Megan Rapinoe and UFC fighter Nate Diaz have admitted to taking cannabidiol regularly.
Amature and professional athletes alike are curious about this cannabis-based compound, so we're here to break down everything you need to know about CBD, including its benefits, risks, and how to use it.
Is CBD Legal for Professional Athletes?
According to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), hemp-derived CBD is permitted. CBD was scrubbed from the list of banned substances the same year the US Farm Bill came into effect, legalizing the production and sale of CBD products from industrial hemp crops.
Professional sports have strict guidelines about what athletes can consume to keep the playing field fair and protect the athletes' health.
In 2009, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps was photographed smoking weed out of a pipe that caused a huge uproar in the news—resulting in losing sponsorship deals and a 3-month suspension from competing in professional events.
Most recently, American track athlete Sha'Carri Richardson tested positive for marijuana use in a state where marijuana is legal. She admitted to smoking weed to cope with the death of her biological mother on top of the pressure of the summer Tokyo Olympics. Richardson received a suspension, disqualifying her from the Olympic trials.
Before the 2018 Farm Bill, cannabidiol was a prohibited substance, so consuming it would have put you in trouble not just with sports organizations but also with the government.
Always look into the rules of your sports organization yourself before trying a CBD product. You don't want to put your athletic career at risk.
World Anti-Doping Agency & CBD Products
To be clear, WADA and USADA only removed CBD from the list of banned substances. Artificial cannabinoids and other cannabis plant compounds are still restricted in professional sporting events.
This means if you take a CBD product that contains trace amounts of THC or other cannabinoids, like in full-spectrum or broad-spectrum extracts—even though it's federally legal—the sports organization may take disciplinary action against you.
Link to the screenshot on the WADA website to insert below
The only safe option you have is to take CBD isolate-based products where the only active ingredient from cannabis is cannabinol.
The only exception to this is if you're applying CBD topical products to massage your muscles and joints for post-workout recovery. Cannabinoids do not enter the bloodstream via the skin. Instead, they affect the endocannabinoid receptors in the skin, so they will not appear in your system for drug testing.
Does CBD Show Up on a Drug Test?
If you have taken CBD, it will come up in the results, but you wouldn’t fail the drug test as it is not on the list of prohibited substances. It would be best if you made sure that you only consume cannabidiol products that have been tested and verified by independent labs.
Trace amounts of THC— even if it's within the federally legal threshold of 0.3%—and other cannabinoids can put your career at risk.
Sports governing bodies have the mandate of ensuring that athletes are clean, so they require athletes to take drug tests periodically. Some of the substances they want to ensure athletes haven’t consumed include steroids, hormone boosters, and stimulants .
The Potential Benefits of CBD For Athletes
A substantial amount of scientific evidence demonstrates CBD's potential in therapeutic uses in clinic and animal studies.
Many people reach for CBD products to support their health and wellness goals because it's a safe compound that offers a range of benefits from pain management, stress reduction, post-workout recovery, and supporting sleep habits.
When every second counts in a sporting event, even subtle changes in the athlete's mental focus and physical ability matter. Here are some of the reasons why CBD is so popular among athletes—amateurs and professionals alike.
1. Supports Stress Reduction
Athletes are under a lot of physical and mental stress. And while stress is an important part of motivation and growth, too much stress can wreak havoc on the body.
One of the ways CBD has been shown to support healthy stress levels is its effects on GABA activity in the brain. GABA is an important neurotransmitter that combats the fight-or-flight stress response. Elevated levels of GABA can help the body enter the rest-and-digest mode for better sleep and recovery.
2. Supports Quality Sleep
We all know that quality sleep is an essential factor in promoting physical and mental health. Sleep deprivation can result in irritability, low energy, high stress, and poor focus.
Many people use CBD for a better night's sleep. Stress and sleep quality go hand-in-hand. Taking CBD before bed has been shown to increase GABA activity in the brain to slow down hyperactivity, helping to prepare the body for quality sleep .
3. Supports Muscle Recovery
Athletes are constantly pushing the limits of their physical capabilities during training and conditioning sessions.
Recovery is crucial for allowing the muscles to rebuild to keep up with the physical demand. However, persistent muscle soreness can minimize an athlete’s performance.
CBD may help with speeding up muscle recovery due to its potential anti-inflammatory effects . While inflammation is a natural response to rebuilding damaged tissue, prolonged inflammation can lead to soreness and more damage. Athletes take CBD oil post-workout to promote healthy inflammation levels during recovery to get back to their training with minimal discomfort.
4. Supports Mental Focus & Calm Game-Day Nervousness
One of the critical factors in an athlete’s success is their ability to focus. During a training session or on competition day, distractions can stem from the internal or external level, and success may hinge on the athlete's ability to overcome these distractions.
CBD oil has become a favorite tool for productivity, and mental focus through its indirect interactions with dopamine in the brain tasked with memory and concentration.
Nervousness is a biological reaction that people experience following a stressful situation. In certain circumstances, the feeling of unease is normal, but some athletes may need some help combatting nerves to unleash their full potential when it comes to game-day.
Is CBD Approved for Medical Purposes?
There is currently only one FDA-approved prescription medication on the market, Epidolex. Epidolex is a highly purified and concentrated form of CBD used to treat seizures.
There are no other FDA-approved CBD products on the market, and you should steer clear of brands that claim that their CBD could cure, mitigate, or treat any disease. The FDA is working on fining these unethical marketing practices and shut down brands that continue to perpetuate these claims.
The research surrounding CBD and its medical uses is still new and more time, and testing is needed, but it's hard to ignore CBD's popularity. The reason it's so hyped is that it truly benefits so many people's lives.
Ways to Use CBD for Athletic Performance
CBD is a versatile ingredient—it can be added to a variety of formulas for different uses like beverages, gummies, lotions, and vapes.
The most common forms of CBD include:
- Sublingual Tinctures
1. Edibles: Capsules, Gummies, Sports Drinks
CBD has become a sought-after ingredient in many food products. These forms of CBD are a great alternative to the traditional CBD oils as they usually come in pre-measured doses and taste better—CBD cookies, gummies, and candies are some of the common types of CBD edibles.
You can take your edibles before your workout to support your mental focus and clarity and again after a strenuous exercise routine to support post-workout recovery.
Make sure you read the description of your CBD product to ensure you're taking the right doses to avoid any unwanted side effects.
2. Smokables: Hemp Cigarettes & Vape Products
Vape CBD products are much more popular than hemp cigarettes in the sports community. Vapes are preferred because vaporizers can be made with isolate CBD, which means it contains no other cannabinoids that may interfere with clean drug testing, and its' easier on the lungs as you're not burning plant matter.
Inhaling CBD is the fastest way to experience its effects as it enters the bloodstream within seconds and bypasses the digestive system, which breaks down a lot of the CBD. However, it's not for everyone.
It's more difficult to control how much CBD you're getting with each puff, so dosing is inconsistent.
Many athletes enjoy vaping CBD for relaxation post-workout to aid in recovery and stress management.
3. Tinctures: CBD Oils
The most popular form of CBD supplementation are tinctures or CBD oils.
These are technically edible forms of CBD, but what makes this different is that you can place CBD oil drops under the tongue to permeate the mucous membrane and enter the bloodstream faster than capsules and gummies.
The benefit of CBD oils is that you can tailor your doses to suit your needs drop-by-drop, and they're available in much higher concentrations.
4. Topicals: Lotions, Creams, Balms
Cooling and heating muscle rubs have always been a popular product in gym bags. Massaging these muscle rubs with active ingredients like capsaicin and menthol into the skin can help control minor inflammation and pain.
Add CBD into the mix, and you've got a muscle rub that works just as hard as athletes.
Topical CBD is best for addressing localized concerns. CBD applied to the skin doesn't enter the bloodstream. It meets with endocannabinoid receptors found in the skin cells to exert its effects. This means you can take broad-spectrum or full-spectrum CBD products topically without the risk of entering the bloodstream and causing an issue with drug testing.
One of the common issues with topical CBD products is that they don't contain potent levels of CBD to do anything more than regular cream.
When shopping for topical CBD products, try to look for products that contain at least 8 mg of CBD or more per mL of product. You can look to the lab tests to verify the concentration.
The Indigo Harper Nourishing CBD Body Balm contains over 10 mg of broad-spectrum CBD per mL with skin-nourishing ingredients such as arnica, aloe vera, and vitamin B to support skin health and inflammatory function.
The Takeaway: CBD for Athletes
Both anecdotally and in clinical studies, CBD proves to have many unique benefits towards supporting an active lifestyle from managing stress, muscle recovery, focus, and better sleep quality.
If you're playing sports professionally, where you're inclined to drug-testing, you must check in with the organizations before taking any compounds that may jeopardize your ability to participate.
Based on our research, only cannabinol isolate products can be taken internally with professional sports organizations. If the test detects any other cannabinoids, you could fail the drug test.
- Heuberger, J. A., & Cohen, A. F. (2019). Review of WADA prohibited substances: limited evidence for performance-enhancing effects. Sports Medicine, 49(4), 525-539.
- Shannon, S., Lewis, N., Lee, H., & Hughes, S. (2019). Cannabidiol in anxiety and sleep: a large case series. The Permanente Journal, 23.
- McCartney, D., Benson, M. J., Desbrow, B., Irwin, C., Suraev, A., & McGregor, I. S. (2020). Cannabidiol and sports performance: a narrative review of relevant evidence and recommendations for future research. Sports Medicine-Open, 6(1), 1-18.
The Food and Drug Administration has not evaluated the statements made regarding these products. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. All information presented here is not meant to substitute for or alternative to information from health care practitioners. Please consult your health care professional about potential interactions or other possible complications before using any product.