learn how cannabis is helping people perform and recover after a gym workout
Is CBD good for sports performance?
is CBD good for sports performance? The answer is yes and surprisingly this cannabis extract, CBD or cannabidiol to give it its full name, is permitted by the Olympic Committee's World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) for use by professional athletes. There is strong evidence it can aid sports preparation, performance and recovery. But is CBD safe for sportsmen and sportswomen? Again, yes the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2018 reported that pure CBD has no adverse health effects. Athletes can use CBD oil! Indeed, the human body creates its own endocannabinoids which act on its endocannabinoid system to create the runners high. It's believed these endocannabinoids are the body's own mechanism for aiding recovery from the strains of a run, bring the body back into balance or homeostasis. This may be the key to why CBD is becoming popular with many athletes.
What are cannabinoids and CBD?
Cannabidiol (CBD) was first isolated from the cannabis family of plants in 1940 but it wasn't until the 1960's that the active components of cannabis and their effects were understood. Much of the early research on the effects of cannabis extracts was performed on Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) as this was found to be the 'psychoactive' component. For a long time, little research was performed on CBD for this reason (1).
In a sport setting, THC, when consumed in large doses, was actually found to be performance reducing in many areas, but despite this, its use was widespread in several sports. Cannabis was often used to help relax, sleep and manage pain, especially in 'extreme sports' and the use of marijuana became a part of the subculture that went along with these often unregulated sports. That was at least until many of these sports governing bodies signed up to World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) rules in an attempt to legitimise the sport to a wider audience and allow entrance into the Olympic games.
This seemed to mark an end for the use of cannabinoids in sport, however more recently there has been a huge increase in interest from both the sporting and research communities on 'microdosing' of THC within legal thresholds and the use of the completely legal phytocannabinoid CBD in the preparation, performance and recovery of athletes.
CBD and THC are two of over 100 organic molecules called cannabinoids and terpenes that are found in the cannabis family of plants. The most well-known plant in this family is hemp (cannabis sativa), and many of the products that contain 'phytocannabinoids' are derived from it. The two most commonly found phytocannabinoids found in cannabis plants are THC and CBD. These are also the two most widely available extracts that have been targeted for therapeutic use (2).
The runner's high and your endocannabinoid system
These organic compounds cause their effects in the body through the 'endogenous cannabinoid system' (ECS). Endogenous means produced in the body. Our body produces endocannabinoids which interact with receptors in the body that cause a number of different physiological effects. The name of the system is named after the plant species, this was because much of the research into the function of this system was undertaken using exogenous (having an external origin) cannabinoids (3).
Interestingly, some of you reading this may have experienced the effects of this system unknowingly as it is endocannabinoids that are most likely the cause of 'runner's high'. Running and general exercise can cause the release of both endorphins and endocannabinoids, which interact with the opioid system (4) and ECS respectively (5) and in turn there is interplay between these two systems.
The relationship between endorphins and the runner's high are often touted as being the cause, however, this hypothesis has some limitations and it appears that there is more to it than endorphins alone as they do not pass the 'blood brain barrier' which would be required to influence our mood state in the brain (6).
It has been suggested that the ECS plays a role in the regulation of many of the body's systems, including those heavily involved in and influenced by exercise (8). Therefore, it is possible that the ECS involvement in these processes is not only responsible for the 'runners high', but also helps in recovery and/or performance during these activities.
The two main receptors that cannabinoids interact with are CB1 and CB21 2 (click here for a more detailed overview of the role of these receptors in the body and interactions with THC and CBD). CB1 receptors are predominantly distributed in the central nervous system, and CB2 receptors are located primarily in the periphery (including the immune system).
CBD is of particular interest for therapeutic benefits because it interacts with transient receptor potential channels (TRPs). These are important physiological sensors that monitor a multitude of things such as hot, cold, loading and pain as well as produce further regulatory effects on peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors (PPAR) (1, 3). PPARs are present in pretty much all of the body's tissues and are important in the regulation of many functions including pain and inflammation. For example, ibuprofen exerts its anti-inflammatory effects through its interaction with PPARs.
There is emerging evidence that CBD interacts and causes its effects through other receptors in the body not directly related to the CBD receptors. These have been linked to reductions in pain signaling and inflammation as well as anxiety and other cognitive disorders (1). It is therefore unsurprising that the use of CBD as a stand-alone product, and in combination with THC (there may be a synergistic benefit of ingesting both compounds in some situations) are of particular interest in sports preparation, performance and recover.
Are CBD and cannabinoids safe in sports?
if we consider that the term cannabinoids covers a range of different organic compounds found in the cannabis family of plants, it is important to understand how national and international doping agencies view each of these cannabinoids in isolation.
The World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) is responsible for determining if a specific compound should be banned and this can be due to either safety concerns over the use of the compound, the capacity of the compound to improve performance and if the substance is in line with the 'spirit' of sport (9). UK Anti Doping (UKAD) is responsible for implementing WADA policies in the UK, as well as the testing and monitoring of athletes across a range of amateur and professional sports.
The rationale behind determining whether a drug fits into these categories can be confusing. For example, caffeine is a completely legal drug and not banned under WADA/UKAD but has strong evidence for improving performance (10), yet other medications which have very little to no evidence for an effect on performance are on the banned list or require the use of a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) if required by an athlete . Some substances are not outright 'banned' but are dependent on the dose, these are called 'threshold substances'.
Is there any evidence for the benefits of CBD and cannabinoids in sport?
The use of cannabinoids in sport is a very novel and potentially exciting area. Increasing numbers of athletes are implementing CBD as a part of their supplement regime.
Studies that have assessed the use of THC in large doses (much higher than found in CBD products) have shown some decreases in measures of sports performance (9) and is therefore not considered beneficial in a direct regard, however at present no research has currently been undertaken into the effects of CBD products and sports performance, although this is an area that is gaining a lot of interest for the reasons outlined above.
There is potential that performance may be improved indirectly through increased relaxation, reduction in stress and better sleep through the use of CBD
Well qualified research into low dose THC and CBD in this area is limited at this time and much of the inferences we can make on the impact on sports performance are derived from research performed in other arenas. However, anecdotally many athletes are finding CBD products help their performance.
However, there is potential that performance may be improved indirectly through increased relaxation, reduction in stress and better sleep through the use of CBD as well as the potential to control inflammation and reduce pain all of which may support overall performance (1, 2, 3).
If we consider the different factors that are essential to sports performance, the most obvious areas where CBD may be of benefit is in preparation and recovery from training or performance
why is recovery important?
In order to generate the adaptations, we desire from training to get better sports performance we have to understand how to maximise recovery in between bouts of training or in between events if the turnaround is of a small time frame.
To some extent we have to place stress on the body in order to force an adaptation we desire. For example, if we lift weights then we create stress through the muscle that causes a response to adapt to that stress. In this case that stress is to increase the size of the muscle, stiffness of tendons and the ability for the muscles to 'fire' effectively, and this stress causes very specific physiological processes to occur in order to achieve this, assuming that the stress is not so great, or recovery approach is so poor that we struggle to recover maximally or at all in some cases.
However, it goes without saying that not all stress is good stress. We want to reduce other stress on the body to maximise our adaptive potential to training stress. In short, the more none-training stress we have on a day to day basis, the less effective our training and performance will be and recovery is going to be impaired.
could cannabinoids help with recovery?
In stress-recovery models, the main factors that influence our capacity to recover from training effectively and maximise our adaptive response are training load/volume, nutrition, sleep, general life stress and inflammation caused by illness, joint injury and tissue damage including delayed onset muscle soreness (14).
Training load is the summation of our efforts in training. Properly structured training/performance programs should aim to increase training load over time to stress the body appropriately to cause adaptations.
Training load is typically measured in relation to the demands of a sport, for example, an Olympic weight lifter might measure their volume in kilograms lifted, a marathon runner in miles or the duration and intensity of exercise.
At some point during a progressive training program, an athlete might enter a state of overreaching; this is a period where performance is decreased slightly as the stress accumulated in the body cannot be recovered from. If this is planned (progressive training will invariably cause this at some point) it is called 'functional overreaching', if it is unplanned is 'non-functional overreaching' (15).
If the athlete keeps pushing through an overreaching phase instead of backing off and recovering this can lead to overtraining, which is a multifactorial disorder that can take several months to recover from.
The more load we can accumulate over a short time frame and the quicker we can recover from overreaching (if we reach this point), the more rapidly we are likely to improve in a given sport. Load impacts on recovery but also recovery impacts on our capacity to increase training load, therefore if we can improve recovery (and determine the potential for cannabinoids to assist in these processes) we are ultimately taking a fast track to improved performance.
The key determinants of nutrition for recovery include adequate protein intake, sufficient carbohydrates and enough overall energy intake as well as proper hydration. Many athletes are also concerned with reaching a specific weight or achieving a specific body composition.
It may be of some concern to an athlete if cannabinoids may impact on appetite causing either an increased or decreased desire to eat in line with their goals. Although THC has been shown to increase appetite, CBD appears to negate these effects and does not appear to typically have an impact on appetite on its own when investigated in animal studies (16). However, human trials using CBD extracts have shown that it may cause an increase in appetite in some people (17).
human trials using CBD extracts have shown that it may cause an increase in appetite in some people
So, for those who struggle to consume enough food to support recovery (e.g. those with high training loads) and muscle growth, CBD extracts may have a small benefit in this regard but it is unlikely to have such an impact that for those looking to reduce body fat it would be problematic in most cases.
Sleep is obviously hugely important for physical and mental recovery. Lack of sleep has been shown to consistently reduce physical and mental performance (18).
Despite this, many athletes struggle to get sufficient sleep and also sufficient quality sleep, especially when under a heavy travelling schedule across multiple time zones or having to train and/or compete at different times of the day.
One of the most common uses for cannabinoids reported by athletes is to help promote better sleep (9) and improvements in sleep quality have been noted as a positive 'side effect' in a number of human trials that have been investigating CBD extract for a number of therapeutic benefits (17).
Sleep also has an impact on the body in ways we might not imagine. Sleep deprivation can increase stress, cause us to overeat (19), increased risk of injury and illness (18) and reduced recovery, worse markers of metabolic markers of health (20) and it can even impact directly on our body composition.
In one study (21) it was demonstrated that those who had less sleep (5h14m vs. 7h25m) during a weight loss phase lost a greater proportion of their weight from muscle than fat, this is obviously far from ideal for athletes.
Sleep and stress go hand in hand; stress can cause lack of sleep and sleep can be a stressor within itself, creating a vicious spiral leading to poorer health, worse recovery, poor performance and injury. It is important for athletes to implement strategies to improve sleep with good sleep 'hygiene' (19, 22).
CBD has been shown to reduce anxiety in simulated public speaking and other tests designed to induce performance anxiety
Stress can come in many forms, from our jobs, family life, financial pressure and even stress and anxiety surrounding sports performance. At present, this is the area where CBD has mounting evidence as being an effective 'anxiolytic' (anti-anxiety substance) (23).
In a 'performance' setting CBD has shown to reduce anxiety in simulated public speaking and other tests designed to induce performance anxiety (24). For those who struggle with stress, anxiety and performance-related nerves there is potential for CBD to reduce these 'symptoms', create relaxation and this may also be perceived to help improve performance (9).
inflammation and injury
Athletes are almost always under some form of inflammation caused by either training, illness or injury that places stress on the body. Inflammation is seen often as a negative thing in the body, but the reality can be a little more complex.
When the body is placed under certain physical stressors that require the breakdown, removal and repair of tissues then the immune system is a key player in mediating these processes. The inflammatory response to exercise for example, is important in creating the adaptations we desire from exercise and long term use of high strength anti-inflammatories may block these wanted processes (25, 26, 27).
In this regard, we should take the perspective that all physiological processes typically serve a purpose (assuming they are functioning normally), then inflammation must be considered a useful process in most situations.
However, there might be times when we have excessive amounts of inflammation, sustained periods of 'chronic' inflammation which are detrimental to recovery (and even health), or we might want to reduce inflammation because it is impeding our ability to perform even if it might be a normal response.
For example, if we need to recover quickly between games, we might not be interested in maximising adaptation, but reducing inflammation and associated pain/sensitivity so that we can perform again effectively.
Inflammation is regulated by a number of inflammatory cytokines and there are both pro-inflammatory cytokines and anti-inflammatory cytokines. Pro-inflammatory cytokines are responsible for triggering the tissue breakdown and recovery processes but also the pain and sensitivity we may feel when we have received 'trauma' to our bodies.
CBD has been demonstrated to reduce inflammation in animal models of arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. This was linked to blocking the production of a pro-inflammatory cytokine called TNF-alpha (23, 28) initiated through CBD interacting through 'adenosine A2A receptors (1).
Pretty much all of the research available at present is based in animal or cell culture models, so the impact in humans has yet to be fully elucidated, however over the next few years due the legality, safety and anecdotal reports of the effectiveness of CBD, as well as increasing evidence at a cellular level for its interactions with key pathways in many of the body's systems, there is likely to be huge advancement in research in CBD usage in human models and its potential application as a therapeutic agent in sports.
what are the other benefits of CBD and cannabinoids in sport?
In human studies that have assessed the use of CBD for a range of medical conditions, there are often reports of 'secondary effects' that were not directly studied but were associated with the use of CBD extracts having a positive effect on a large proportion of the study participants.
These included improved awareness, better overall mood, improved cognitive function and motor skills. It is difficult to fully attribute these effects to CBD in this situation without these effects being the primary outcome in these studies. It is also highly likely that there is an individual response to CBD and the impacts we might get from using it (17).
These 'extra' effects as well as increasing anecdotal reports of the benefits of CBD and cannabinoids for directly and indirectly improving sports performance, are exactly why researchers are starting to investigate these areas more directly and we are certainly excited to see the direction and outcomes that this research produces to fully understand the benefits of CBD in sports, in what context it is useful and for who it is likely to be beneficial.
CBD in sports summary
Although at present there is limited research into the use of CBD in sports, there is sufficient evidence from other areas of research and animal studies to be excited about the prospect of CBD having a significant benefit for some people.
Specifically, cannabinoids appear to most likely have benefits for relaxation and sleep, management of pain and inflammation, reductions in performance and lifestyle stress and producing a calming effect for the athlete.
If you are using CBD in sport, we'd love to hear how you find, please do contact us. If you have any questions on CBD in sports or any of our products, then please feel free to drop us an email on…