How CBD Could Be Used in Sport

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The World Anti-Doping Agency recently removed cannabidiol (CBD) from its list of banned substances, after numerous calls from athletes for new treatment options for pain, so they can avoid addictive opioid-based painkillers and the side effects that they bring. Memorably, following his defeat to Conor McGregor in the main event at UFC 202, Nate Diaz was using a CBD vape pen at the post-fight press conference – an incident which may have caused controversy, but also garnered media attention for CBD.

CBD is at the forefront of the medical cannabis revolution currently taking place in the United States. The cannabinoid has a myriad of important therapeutic uses, not least helping to reduce seizures in children with otherwise untreatable epilepsy, and these effects can be administered without causing a psychoactive “high” – that effect, which has made cannabis such a popular recreational drug, comes from another cannabinoid in the plant, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Medical cannabis advocates are quick to point out that THC has unique therapeutic value, but its psychoactive status, and potential adverse mental health effects, have held back its progress as a medicine. CBD products, however, have enjoyed a much swifter passage into mainstream society, as they are neither psychoactive nor addictive. Indeed, specific medical cannabis legislation is not required in the United States for CBD products, providing the extract used is from hemp and contains no more than 0.3 percent THC.

CBD functions in the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which regulates pain, immune system response, appetite levels, mood and stress, to name just five. Since first learning about this system in the 1990s, scientists have been stunned at the wide-ranging, and previously unknown implications the ECS has on our physical and psychological wellbeing.

Now that CBD is no longer prohibited by WADA, athletes are able to freely use the substance both in and out of competition. Let’s look at how the savviest competitors may benefit.

Pain reduction

Dealing with pain is a reality of life as a professional sportsperson, but it can have a major impact on performance and the ability to train hard and get in to peak physical condition. Opioids may successfully blunt pain signals, but the long-term effects can be devastating, as explained by former UFC fighter Bas Rutten. The American was prescribed Vicodin, which doctors now know can cause liver damage, and then OxyContin, which he found highly addictive and eventually ineffective. Side effects of OxyContin include drowsiness, delayed reactions, vomiting and respiratory system issues.

In contrast, CBD comes with very few side effects, although high-dose users sometimes report sleepiness. But importantly, there is no risk of overdose or getting addicted. CBD alleviates pain by interacting with cannabinoid receptors and the TRPV-1 receptor, by promoting anandamide, an endocannabinoid and neurotransmitter.

Consuming CBD vape oil and e-liquid is an extremely efficient way of easing acute pain symptoms, as inhaling cannabinoids provides a faster route into the bloodstream and the ECS. However, for localized pain, the analgesic effects of CBD may be better delivered by using an infused massage gel or salve. Runners, for example, can protect their knees from pain and inflammatory damage by rubbing a CBD topical into the patella.

Reducing cortisol

Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone and is released in high levels when the body’s fight-or-flight response is activated. Cortisol has some valuable benefits, such as helping with memory formation and reducing inflammation, but too much can cause mood swings, muscle weakness and osteoporosis (weak bones).

For athletes, and particularly bodybuilders, the negative effect that cortisol has on muscles and bones can be debilitating. Even the average gym-goer may find that their efforts to build muscle are fruitless if they find themselves under too much stress.

However, cortisol is a renowned cortisol inhibitor, and can therefore have a useful role in the strength and conditioning process. Taking CBD before a weight training session has an anti-catabolic effect, so the effort put into building muscle mass doesn’t go to waste. Moreover, CBD does not impact testosterone, a hormone key for muscle growth. Rubbing CBD cream into the body after a workout also has a protective effect on muscles.

Performance anxiety

Tip-top physical conditioning only goes so far in sport, and without the mental fortitude to succeed in pressure moments, failure is pretty much inevitable. Those afflicted by performance anxiety can find themselves physically unable to do something they could manage 100 times in practice without fail, as their minds become paralyzed by negative thoughts, such as fear of failure or embarrassment.

The “yips”, which cause involuntary spasms in the wrists, are notorious for affecting golfers and baseball pitchers. For some, the yips occur due to a neurological condition, but sports psychologist Nick Molinaro says that 70 percent of the time it happens because of psychological reasons. 

CBD has been studied – with encouraging results – as a treatment for public-speaking anxiety, considerably outperforming the placebo in a 2011 European study. Researchers have identified two ways that CBD helps to reduce anxiety: firstly, by agonising the serotonin 1A receptor, and secondly by increasing the flow of soothing GABA neurotransmitters in the brain. In a nutshell, CBD’s calming effect clears the mind from racing thoughts. No further explanation is needed on the benefits that could have for a golfer facing a championship-winning putt, or a pitcher one out away from a no-hitter.


Finding motivation when it matters usually isn’t an issue but getting psychologically revved up to train on a cold, winter morning can be another story. However, CBD may have some really useful benefits for motivation.

The slightly euphoric “runner’s high” which athletes enjoy love when they hit the gym or go on a long run is actually the result of a cannabis-like effect. Contrary to years of accepted wisdom that “feel-good” endorphins were behind it, studies now show that antidepressant anandamide is behind this happy buzz. Anandamide is also found in chocolate which, along with the sugar rush, may explain why marathon runners are sometimes found snacking on a bar prior to a big race.

Anandamide binds to the CB1 receptor, which is responsible for regulating mood. Supplementing the body with CBD indirectly raises anandamide levels, by blocking the FAAH enzyme from breaking it down. Therefore, those finding themselves unable to find the motivation to train could benefit from a quick vape session or taking some oil beforehand.