Remember Ross Rebagliati, the Canadian snowboarder who had his Olympic gold medal rescinded for using marijuana? Of course, you don’t. His case is over twenty years old, and while he may have spent a few years as an international punchline, it now looks like he was just ahead of the curve: since 1998, conventional sports medicine has made plenty of room for the safe use of cannabis, and after getting his medal back, Rebagliati was ahead of Cliff Robinson, Liz Carmouche, and Ricky Williams in becoming a cannabis entrepreneur, riding the weak stoner humor all the way to the bank.
These days, the idea of serious competitors using these products just doesn’t seem that funny or ridiculous anymore. If you’re trying to sharpen your game, improve your recovery time, or just be active, CBD can be an effective agent against muscle pain, inflammation, appetite problems, or even obesity.
CBD is an Athlete’s Best Friend.
Despite its association with binge eating and junk food, cannabis has shown some potential to actually improve body mass index. We know this not only from the vast number of fit and healthy cannabis users we’ve met over the years but from cross-sectional epidemiological studies that show an inverse relationship between cannabis and obesity. For decades, THC has been rightly administered by severely underweight cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, precisely because the compound can stimulate hunger by docking with CB1 receptors in the brain. By blocking these receptors, the right balance of cannabinoids can produce the opposite response, affecting both appetite and body fat: a 2009 study found that by injecting mice with a lesser-known compound called THCV, the authors could actually suppress food intake and inhibit weight gain. Another study, from 2007, found that THC could increase the activity of lipoxygenase, an enzyme involved in lipid metabolism.
If your running buddies joke that cannabis makes you lazy and sedentary, just mention Avery Collins, an elite ultramarathoner who uses it to relieve sore muscles and pain. The data is on his side: endocannabinoids including AEA and 2-AG are present in the same circuits as histamine, tumor necrosis factor-alpha, and interleukin 1 beta–neurotransmitters which carry pain signals when tissue is damaged. By binding to the CB1 receptors on a nerve cell, cannabinoids can reduce that signal by slowing down the release of those neurotransmitters, while also inhibiting pain signals conducted by the dorsal horn of the spinal cord, and in the ascending spinothalamic tract.
The support is just as strong for using cannabis for inflammation. One study from 2010 found that AEA can bind to CB2 receptors, expressed by the CD4 class of lymphocytes, and inhibit them from releasing cytokines, which intensify the inflammatory response. Another study, from 2008, indicated that both AEA and 2-AG could dock with peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors expressed on immune cells called splenocytes, which slow the release of interleukin-2, another cytokine associated with compressed and inflamed tissue.
Of course, the best research might only focus on a specific cannabinoid, following a specific pathway, affecting a specific aspect of athletes’ lives. This can make it hard to generalize: depending on the balance of THC, CBD, terpenes, and flavonoids, a product that works great for minor inflammation and muscular pain from endurance training might also make you feel less alert during long races, an unwelcome tradeoff. Cannabinoids that put you to sleep can be great when you’re trying to recover between workouts, but in other contexts, drowsiness or slowed reaction time can be real liabilities. This is why it’s so helpful to know the full ingredient profile of whatever you consider buying and to be specific about what you really want.
Attitudes toward cannabis vary widely at the top levels of the sport. The NBA and NFL still subject players to random screenings during the season, regardless of the law in their team’s home state. By contrast, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has a higher limit for THC metabolites than most workplace urine tests in the US, with no restrictions for CBD.
Numerous sports organizations have no prohibitions at all, and at the lower level, coaches and trainers have been increasingly vocal about how CBD can help support a healthy and active lifestyle, especially if you shop carefully. We’ve done a lot of the research for you —just like the search for the perfect pair of running shoes, you deserve the best.