It is a question we hear today that we never heard 5 years ago: Is there a place for CBD Oil in the world of endurance fitness, running, cycling, and triathlon?
The past decade has seen a rise of cannabis acceptance worldwide. Its use is becoming more commonplace and less taboo, and the world is beginning to better understand the difference between CBD and THC. However, while there are documented medical and therapeutic applications for (THC), a significant amount of evidence and research indicates that cannabinol (CBD), a nonpsychoactive component of the Marijuana bud, may serve as a powerful therapy not only for a variety of diseases and illnesses, but may benefit athletes engaged in endurance sports. As a result, CBD has skyrocketed in popularity since finding its place in the pop cultural limelight.
Largely unknown a decade ago, CBD is now everywhere. More states are legalizing marijuana and patients, and users have learned to seek out CBD because of its medicinal effects, despite often not knowing how it works or even what it is. Retail sales of CBD are growing at a rate of about 40% per year, with millennial consumers leading the charge. In fact, CBD has become so popular that there is a restaurant and bar in Manhattan devoted specifically to CBD oil, infusing the product into everything on the menu. However, before diving into the myriad ways that CBD can improve the lives of consumers, including athletes, its worth understanding how it works.
Before we write any more, let us remind everyone: We are not CBD experts, nor are we physicians who understand the effects of chemicals on the body. We are simply endurance athletes who are as curious about CBD as many of you are.
How CBD Works
OK, this is going to get a little technical.
CBD is likely pleiotropic, which means that that it affects a variety of neural pathways and receptors, not all of which are strictly related, apart from being necessary for cognition and brain function. Research suggests that CBD attaches to the serotonin receptors (anxiety, pain, etc.); vanilloid receptors (inflammation, body temperature); orphan receptors (blood pressure, bone density; and nuclear receptors (tumors, dementia). Critically, while CBD’s effects are profound, users do not experience an altered state of consciousness or “high.” Consequently, CBD is safe for individuals to use in sporting events. Although it’s unlikely that modern medicine has pinpointed all of the potential value contained within CBD, so far, it’s proved useful as an anxiolytic, a nootropic, a pain reliever, and joint inflammation reducer. For athletes, conditions like anxiety can seriously limit overall performance potential, and fortunately, CBD can help.
Currently, there are strong indications that CBD is an effective anxiolytic (anxiety reliever) and may also concurrently enhance mood. With few, if any major side effects, CBD is a well-tolerated and non-addictive alternative to other, frequently prescribed anti-anxiety drugs. Comparatively, Benzodiazepines down-regulate GABA receptors over time, and are so intensely habit-forming that sudden cessation of the medication may cause death. Additionally, CBD oil works right away and may target anxiety specifically. Long-term pharmacologic like SSRIs and SNRIs can take months to begin working and are associated with weight gain, flat affect and a variety of other undesirable consequences.
CBD Applications for Athletes
There are a few ways that we are seeing endurance athletes use CBD oil to aid their performance, recovery, and overall enjoyment of endurance sports. Here are a few:
CBD For Performance Anxiety
For athletes, competition related anxiety can affect performance, mindset and even willingness to participate in events. CBD oil can be especially helpful for younger athletes who have not developed a routine for managing and coping with the anxiety that athletic performance can produce. The numbers of student athletes who say they are dealing with some type of mental illness associated with their sport is increasing. Some of that may most certainly be due to culture and overactive parenting, but there could be a role for neurotropic therapies too. However, medicines like Benzodiazepines cause sedation and slower reflexes. Anxiolytics for the longer-term, like SSRIs, cause metabolic changes that could also negatively influence performance. Thus, CBD oil may be the key to helping athletes resume their athletic endeavors after experiencing bouts of anxiety or panic attacks.
Our own (unscientific) testing suggests that CBD doesn’t necessarily get rid of the nerves, but it helps curb the extreme moments of your fight-or-flight response.
Applying this to triathlon, there may be benefits from reducing the anxiety many athletes feel on race day. Specifically in the swim portion of a race, it is all about relaxing. Being able to relax and get into a rhythm is something many triathletes struggle with. Deep breathing before a race can help. Perhaps there is a role for CBD oil here as well. If you are someone who tends to panic during a leg of the race such as in the swim, CBD might be able to help.
Taking it a step further, CBD may help with sleep, and sleep definitely helps with endurance training and racing. A strong case could be made that if you are one of the athletes who tends to have a hard time sleeping, you may want to consider CBD (along with other options) for getting yourself into a more regular sleep pattern and benefitting from proper rest.
Social CBD makes a “Chill” line that works well in this regard. Find it here.
CBD for Mental Acuity
Indeed, CBD has shown promise as a nootropic or cognitive enhancer. It helps to thwart the oxidative damage that often occurs in high-intensity exercise and training. Documented oxidative damage occurs in wrestling, soccer, and basketball, none of which are even high-impact sports. Athletes can and should consider using CBD oil not only to protect themselves from oxidative damage, which may lead to dementia and brain disease in the future, but also to optimize on-field performance. Anyone who has played basketball or football knows that memorizing and recalling the playbook provides a major in-game advantage and failing to do so can severely undercut potential performance, even if the athlete has power, speed, dexterity, etc. When well-conditioned athletes fall short in competition, it’s often mental.
Specifically for the triathlete, there may be some benefits from getting “in the zone” during a transition, or being able to disengage from the pack on a bike and dial-in to your ideal pace. We are always preaching road bike safety, too, so perhaps there is a use for situations when you might be cycling in a more dangerous situation and really need to be on high alert. Those things require mental acuity.
CBD for Muscle and Joint Pain
Perhaps the most exciting anecdote we are about CBD use is that it can relieve muscle and joint pain. No doubt, CBD relieves pain for many people. However, endurance athletes fall into a special category. They can encounter pain frequently, despite being in top physical condition. Moreover, they are expected to manage pain that would keep a regular person home from work, and perform at a high level on race day. If you are having issues with muscle pain, also ask yourself if you have enough electrolytes. Heavy sweating from workouts can really deplete sodium, potassium, and other electrolytes. You can always get a blood test, or you can simply start using some Zym, Nuun, or Skratch additives to see if that helps reduce the soreness.
Past protocols, like NSAIDs and opiates, are rife with problems. NSAIDS can wreak havoc on the gut biome and over time, even raise the risk of coronary issues. Opiates on the hand, are notoriously addictive. Additionally, they’re so powerful that athletes play though levels of pain that ought to stop them, and subsequently cause long term harm to their bodies. CBD is a much safer, long-term alternative for athletes seeking to reduce pain. By attaching to inhibitory receptors in the brain, in this case glycerin receptors, CBD alters the perception of pain but does so safely and naturally. Think of opiates as powerful, blunt tools that alter perception beyond pain management, and CBD as a strong highly precise instrument that carefully modulates pain. Athletes remain in touch with their bodies but can play through pain more effectively. Finally, CBD reduces inflammation, promoting long-term health and well being.
Social CBD makes a roll-on formulation specifically for this purpose. You can find it here.
CBD for Inflammation
CBD appears to have an anti-inflammatory effect throughout the body, including joint inflammation that many athletes suffer during and after athletic competition. You don’t need to go far to find ex-long distance runners who have creaky knees, despite once being in the top 1% percent of the population in endurance and conditioning. Amateur athletes and weekend warriors may benefit from reduced joint inflammation. In the long term, it is easy to see the potential for medical cost savings. Replacing knees and hips are extraordinarily expensive, and the cost of effective medication for arthritis can also be prohibitive. By attaching to endocannabinoid receptors, CBD changes the way neurotransmitters send messages to the body, telling joints not to become inflamed. Reduced inflammation allows for both faster recovery and joint preservation in the long-term. For anyone who truly wants to be a life-long athlete, CBD oil is a promising and potentially essential therapy for maintaining wellness and bio-equilibrium.
Ultimately, there is a promising trend developing that athletes of all types may benefit from CBD oils. The benefits could apply to both mind and body, protect against future ailments, all while saving athletes from the cost of side effects and the possibility of addiction. What’s more, CBD oil has proved to be so effective in so many novel ways, that it seems possible that athletes will experience additional benefits that science has yet to reveal. Either way, CBD oil seems to be permanently on the scene, so we will continue to follow it.
What About Hemp Oil — Is it the Same?
A common question is if hemp oil and CBD oil are essentially the same. No, they are not. They are actually related — both are in the cannabis family – but different.
Hemp oil is a very good oil for endurance athletes as well, with its brain and heart benefits, its potential to calm anxiety, and its ability to reduce pain and stiffness. Those are all qualities that the typical endurance athlete will appreciate. A hemp oil extract, like one we like from New Age, most definitely has a place in the training cabinet for an endurance athlete.
Because of the lower resin concentration in a hemp plant, which creates far less cannabidiol to be extracted, hemp oil cannot claim to have the same benefits as CBD oil. While there could be trace amounts of CBD that makes it way into hemp oil, it is really a tiny fraction. Hemp oil no doubt has health benefits of its own for an endurance athlete, but it is not the same as CBD Oil and should be evaluated independently.
Nothing New on Race Day!
As with most of the advice we give on this website, be sure not to do your experimenting on race day! The time to try new things — whether it is a different gel shot combination, a new bike fit, or CBD — is during your boring training days. See how it works, take notes on how you feel. If you like it, keep doing it. If it doesn’t work for you, then it doesn’t work for you. Just don’t do anything new on race day!
Jim is an accomplished triathlete and endurance cyclist, and has raced in more than 3 dozen USAT-certified races. He is also an avid trail runner and gravel bike rider.
His areas of expertise are in endurance training, cycling, triathlon technique, race direction, and training plans. In addition to writing extensively about the endurance world, he has managed gyms and fitness centers in the US. Jim is a longtime writer for Complete Tri, Compression Design, and his work can be found on the resource pages of many triathlon and cycling clubs in North America.