If you’re an athlete you already know how much stress training puts on your body. That training stress has both benefits, such as better performance and adaptation, and drawbacks. The wear and tear of training over time does cause physical trauma, pain, and injuries.
There are over-the-counter and prescription methods for managing pain, but they can be dangerous or even deadly. Clearly opioid pain management is a non-starter, particularly for an athlete in the midst of a deadly epidemic of opioid addiction and overdoses. Even NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen sodium, when used chronically can be dangerous, causing issues with the liver and renal system, and increased risk of stroke.
No wonder so many athletes and generally active people have gone looking for safer pain relief and enhanced sports recovery—only to discover cannabidiol or CBD for athletes. The promise of reduced inflammation and non-addictive pain relief is enticing, but are CBD products right for you and your sport?
In this post, we’ll cover the use of CBD in sports, how CBD oil for athletes works, and recommend our favorite CBD products for athletes and people who work out.
Disclaimer: If you are a professional athlete or otherwise receive drug testing, realize that some CBD products have the potential to register on a drug test—however unlikely. Given the high stakes for someone in your position, this should probably be a factor in your shopping. We’ll discuss this issue and many more below. And remember, although the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is tasked with regulating products like these in the United States, there is a lot of poor quality stuff out there, so read labels carefully.
Spruce Topical CBD Cream
We recommend Spruce products a lot—for good reason. The products work well, they are gentle on sensitive skin, they truly work for mood and pain, and Spruce the company is just easy to deal with. You can rely on them and their service, and for us that matters a lot.
Spruce sources all of their hemp from family-owned and operated Colorado and Kentucky farms known for sustainable, safe farming methods. This is how the brand lays its hands on some of the highest quality and potency and cannabis and hemp strains available for use in CBD products consistently.
The Spruce brand moonshine extraction technique is another truly unique feature of these products. After filtering and bottling, this method enables Spruce to produce the best blend of high-CBD hemp seed oil. There’s nothing but pure, full-plant CBD extract left once the moonshine is gone, and no aftertaste or side effects.
We also love the strength of this product. You’re getting a minimum of 1,000mg of CBD from this pain salve, and you know those are effects you’ll be feeling, even topically. And the additional ingredients are genuinely great for your skincare routine—no breakouts from this product.
Now, Spruce products are full-spectrum, meaning there are other cannabinoids in them, so for professional athletes subject to testing, this can potentially be a worry. See Spruce third-party testing results here, but basically you’ll confirm a high level of CBD, plus trace amounts of other non-psychoactive cannabinoids, such as Cannabichromene (CBC) and Cannabidiolic Acid (CBDA).
In terms of those terpenes that make cannabis smell so good and boost your mood, this pain salve is a winner, containing therapeutic levels of limonene, caryophyllene, linalool, and geraniol. This delivers the delicate, lightly floral yet spicy and fruity notes you get from this pain salve, plus their potential as pain relievers alongside the uplifting and relaxing benefits of these terpenes.
All in all, at $89 for a 1,000 mg tub or $169 for 2,000 mg, this is an excellent full-spectrum value, as well. Furthermore, as you can see from the results above, all Spruce CBD products are tested by an independent third party and free of harmful heavy metals, chemicals, and pesticides.
Shipping from Spruce is free inside the US. After your first purchase, if you’re not happy, you can qualify for a full refund—of products that are unopened only.
Extract Labs is another brand we trust. The brand of a combat veteran, founder and CEO Craig Henderson, Extract Labs has a real focus on wellness through CBD and on integrating CBD into an overall healthful lifestyle. Proof of this dedication is the discount veterans and other qualifying customers can get on orders—up to 50 percent off.
All Extract Labs products are lab-tested in-house, and you can also find proof of a cGMP (Certified Good Manufacturing Process). The products, including this muscle cream, are vegan certified and certified kosher.
The CBD Muscle Cream is ideal for chronic aches and pain and for post-workout recovery. Each tin contains an amazing 1500mg of full-spectrum CBD plus menthol and arnica for added pain relief. At $90, 1500mg of CBD is pretty amazing, and you can even get a bulk buy discount of 20 percent off if you buy 5 or more at once.
MedTerra CBD Topicals Pain Cream
Another well-respected CBD brand, MedTerra uses CO2 extraction to preserve beneficial terpenes and other hemp compounds. Based in Kentucky, MedTerra also sources hemp for all of its products from the best hemp in the USA, unlike so many other CBD producers that source their plant matter from Russia, China, and South Korea. As a member of the pilot program in industrial hemp out of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, MedTerra lives in an American hot spot for quality and adheres to strict guidelines.
MedTerra’s Rapid Cooling Cream blends the power of CBD extract plus other organic botanicals to promote joint support in particular as well as general pain relief. This topical cream provides an amazing cooling sensation on contact with menthol and arnica that lasts for hours. Aloe leaf juice, sunflower seed oil, and other high-grade organic ingredients also provide skin soothing and softening relief.
For people working out hard, we like the 750 mg of CBD in a 3.4 fl.oz. bottle, but you can also get 250 mg in that same size. (The roll-on option is only available in the 250mg, 2oz size.)
MedTerra is just about the safest CBD topical option for athletes, too, because it is made with 99.6 percent pure CBD isolate. This means it is free of all other cannabinoids, keeping you in the safety zone for testing and THC-free for certain.
Look for actual 5-star product reviews from verified customers on the MedTerra website. You’ll see that lots of people working out and playing use MedTerra CBD Rapid Cooling Cream to treat muscle and joint pain in knees, elbows, hips, the lower back, and everywhere else with great success.
This is our pick for a CBD isolate based topical.
Learn even more about our favorite CBD creams and lotions, here.
Is CBD for Athletes Legal?
There are two different issues here. Legality inside the world of sports, and legality outside sports. The main question is usually directed at sports, and the answer is yes.
In 2018, both the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) altered the list of prohibited substances to remove CBD. This applies in and out of competition. The 2020 WADA Prohibited List is here. The USADA also clarified the rules with a Marijuana FAQ page.
However, ONLY CBD is allowed. The specific wording prohibits all natural and synthetic cannabinoids in cannabis and cannabis products, including anything that masks the effects of THC, except cannabidiol or CBD. This means that any other cannabinoids on a sensitive test can be a problem for a competitive athlete.
WADA also aims to capture not casual use outside competition, but event-day, in-competition consumption and use. It does this by setting a THC threshold of 150 nanograms per milliliter for urine, ten times more lenient than the previous limit.
As for the legality of CBD, THC, or anything else cannabis related outside of sports, as you’ve probably already seen, that varies widely. There are now 15 recreational cannabis states plus Washington DC, and 20 additional states with medical marijuana programs. How each of these laws impacts CBD use can vary slightly. The legality of cannabis at the federal, state, and local levels is constantly evolving, so always check local laws before consuming, and certainly before traveling.
So as an athlete CBD may be legal for you, but what can it do for you? Why should you use it?
Research indicates that CBD cream has many promising benefits that could help athletes and active people more generally, which we’ll cover in depth below. And unlike THC, which shares many of the same benefits, CBD does not cause unwanted, performance affecting side effects. Furthermore, according to the World Health Organization WHO, CBD does not have the potential for dependence or misuse that pain-relieving substances such as opioids have.
Many people refer to CBD as a non-psychoactive alternative to THC. However, since CBD does technically bind with the same CB1 receptors in the brain as THC does to do things like boost the mood or relax you, this is a little misleading. The difference is how CBD works with the receptors, and the bottom line is that it produces no effects that make users feel “high.”
Cannabinoids actually exist in the human body already by nature. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) includes those CB1 receptors along with CB2 receptors and other components. Together, the ECS regulates neuronal activity and helps the body achieve homeostasis or balance.
The human nervous system produces two endocannabinoids, 2-AG and EAE, downstream within postsynaptic neurons for release into the synapse. These endocannabinoids bind upstream on the presynaptic neuron to CB1 and CB2 receptors to inhibit the release of certain neurotransmitters. For example, CBD may reduce seizure activity by reducing the buildup of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, making it useful in the treatment of epilepsy.
CB1 receptors are located throughout the central nervous system, including the spinal cord, brain, and other tissues. CB2 receptors are more prominent in the tissues of the immune system. For these reasons, CBD that binds with CB1 receptors affects the CNS more, while CBD that binds with the CB2 receptors is more useful in treating inflammation and related issues.
The endocannabinoid system has as its primary task the goal of peeing neurotransmitter levels in check to maintain homeostasis, but at times the ECS remains out of balance. Using CBD products is a way of increasing the activity of or supplementing the body’s existing ECS.
For athletes, the need for homeostasis is crystal clear, and the amount of stress on the body from training makes achieving it a challenge. More inflammation and pain from stress can mean an overwhelmed ECS. This is why so many athletes are turning to exogenous CBD products to maintain homeostasis and get an overworked system of neurotransmitters back under control.
Benefits of CBD for Athletes
With CBD legal for athletes, you may be wondering: why bother? There are extensive benefits that can come from supplemental CBD use. Here are some of them, with the supporting research.
Relieve Pain. Cannabis and CBD in particular are effective for treating pain, including stiff joints and musculoskeletal caused or worsened by exercise.
Alternative to NSAIDs. Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen sodium (Aleve) are in common use for athletes, but using them over the long term can be dangerous. Even for people with short, measured workouts, frequent and/or long-term NSAID use can increase the risk of stroke and heart attack. However, there is no proven risk of death or serious injury from cannabis use.
Alternative to Opioids. Similarly, according to the CDC, opioids were involved in over 46,800 deaths in the US in 2018. Opioid pain medications such as codeine, morphine, and oxycontin are effective for managing pain, but carry significant risks. Cannabinoids are effective for long-term pain management and do not carry those same risks.
Reduce Inflammation. Excessive inflammation hurts athletic performance and hinders recovery. The CB2 receptors in the immune tissues bind with cannabinoids to reduce cytokine production and create an anti-inflammatory effect. This allows the body to recover from tough training more readily.
Strengthens the Immune System. CBD can help the body resist infections and stress, because it is immune suppressive and promotes cell regulation.
Recover More Quickly. As an athlete you’ve probably tried everything under the sun to recover from an injury, or just the stress of normal training. Overexertion can unquestionably hurt the body, sometimes permanently. But CBD is also rich in antioxidants that help repair damage to the body and reduce recovery time.
Settle the Gut, Protect Against GI Damage. Research shows that CBD can protect against the gastrointestinal (GI) damage that can cause so much discomfort in athletes in the form of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Hard training can reduce delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the GI tract, but CBD can reduce the underlying inflammation and resulting tissue damage in the intestine.
Bone Health. Research also indicates that CBD may help heal fractures by supporting healthy bone deposition.
Increases Endurance And Fitness. Achieving balance in the ECS improves overall performance.
Increases Muscle Gain. Experts have shown that use of traditional anti-inflammatory drugs such as NSAIDs can actually compromise muscle strength and adaptation. CBD does not have those side effects and also speeds muscle recovery.
Improve Sleep Quality. Athletes require great sleep to recover, and CBD is a proven sleep aid. By inhibiting the reuptake of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which the brain produces as it breaks down carbohydrates for energy, CBD helps the main feel calmer and slows brain activity. This is because more adenosine inhibits the release of neurotransmitters, instead binding itself with neurons and inducing sleep. During sleep, the body metabolizes adenosine, and low concentrations of it motivate the body to awake and start the process again. (And of course less pain also means better sleep.)
Manage Stress and Anxiety. Speaking of a decent night’s sleep, too much stress and a bad mindset can be an athlete’s worst enemy. The stress of training is high, and failure is always possible. However, CBD works with the brain’s receptors to help regulate emotions such as fear and anxiety.
Weight Management. CBD helps convert white fat cells into brown fat cells, helping manage weight.
Neuroprotective Qualities Protect Against Brain Injury. CBD has neuroprotective properties that can counteract harm after sports-related injuries in contact sports.
How to Use CBD Oil for Athletes
How to use CBD as an athlete is partly a matter of preference, but there are some things to keep in mind. It is possible to consume CBD as a tincture under the tongue, or orally as an oil or edible, or as softgels or capsules. You can also consume CBD infused into recovery drinks, sports drinks, coffees, and other products. And of course there are many topical CBD products to try.
The onset of CBD’s benefits is impacted by how you consume it. Oils, capsules, softgels, drinks, and edibles have to get through the digestive system, so it can take longer to feel relief. Sublingual drops/tinctures are the most rapid route to benefits, other than smoking or vaping—and it probably goes without saying that neither of those options is ideal for athletes.
Our advice for athletes who want to try CBD is this. For those just looking to try the general benefits and help prevent chronic medical conditions, try the sublingual tincture, or pair it with a topical, especially when you’re feeling acute pain or an injury. Sublingual drops mean higher bioavailability and a resulting lower dose, plus faster onset without irritation to the lungs. A regular routine with CBD tinctures plus topicals is a great option.
Nighttime use is often a good time to try edibles or capsules, if you want to switch up your routine. This is because the longer lasting benefits help support better sleep, and the slower onset can be more part of an evening routine.
And of course, we love CBD topicals for athletes and people who work out because thanks to the anti-inflammatory properties which are also found in topicals, you can get immediate, targeted relief from things like muscle soreness where you’re having pain. The other ingredients of the best products have additional skin nourishing and pain soothing qualities, and you bypass the GI system entirely, so it’s just an ideal delivery method for anyone in training.
As we mentioned elsewhere, remember that CBD is available as “full-spectrum,” “broad-spectrum,” or “isolate”. Full spectrum and broad spectrum CBD products contain not just CBD, but other cannabis compounds and cannabinoids. In the case of full-spectrum products this can include trace amounts of THC, but in any case, for drug testing athletes, only CBD is permissible.
For CBD products derived from industrial hemp, legally speaking the THC content of the original plant was less than .3 percent. However, CBD isolate should only contain CBD, and make a better choice for athletes from an anti-doping standpoint.
In terms of how much CBD to use, this is widely variant and tricky until you experiment and find out the right amount for yourself. There is no standard adult dose of CBD that produces the same effects across the board in humans.
This is even more complicated depending on how you consume your CBD, since it can be more or less difficult to dose precisely when consuming edibles like gummies versus oils, or vaping versus using topicals. Most CBD producers recommend this tactic, and so do we: start with a low dose and increase it gradually based on the benefits you experience.
The cannabis plant and CBD can be an important tool for athletes, offering relief from both chronic and occasional pain, and improved recovery from training stress. As an athlete, too, just as you can tell when a new energy product, workout, or technique is helping you, you’re likely to notice the effects of CBD when you try these products.
The risk for athletes, given the importance of health and performance, is getting high-quality products. These reputable brands can deliver the benefits of CBD for athletes and really anyone who is active and works out a lot. They provide anti-inflammatory and pain relief without the same risks as other methods, naturally.