More athletes have been turning to cannabis to support their recovery efforts post-game or post-workout, but what purpose do CBD and THC serve in a sports and exercise setting?
The popularity of cannabis (or marijuana) has increased significantly since becoming legalized for recreational and/or medical use in certain states, including California, Colorado and Illinois. This powerful plant has been enjoyed recreationally for years, but it has also been used to ease symptoms of depression and anxiety while reducing nausea and physical pain, among other uses. Recently, even athletes — usually touted for being in exemplary physical health — have been turning to cannabis for a surprising reason: to aid in physical recovery.
After a tough workout or game, athletes are known to recover by taking ice baths or getting massages, but there has been a recent rise in the use of cannabis to receive similar physical and mental relief. In fact, in 2019 it was reported that cannabinoids were considered the second most commonly used substance among contact-sports athletes, replacing nicotine, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM).
Marijuana consists of both CBD and THC. THC typically has a mind-altering effect — what is known as a “high.” CBD, which does not impair bodily functions and does not cause a high, is more commonly used in the worlds of sports, mental health and pain relief. Because CBD is also not addictive, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) removed CBD from its prohibited list in 2018, meaning that athletes are allowed to use CBD, in or out of competition. However, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency notes that “because it’s nearly impossible to extract only CBD from the cannabis plant, athletes should assume that CBD products are probably mixtures of CBD and other prohibited cannabinoids” and they should be cautious if using the substance while subject to anti-doping rules. THC remains on WADA’s prohibited list.
CBD can be applied topically or consumed through smoke inhalation or edible consumption. According to Forbes Health, “CBD interacts with neuroreceptors in your endocannabinoid system, which sends signals between your cells to help regulate your movement, mood, homeostasis and immune system.”
CBD edibles are becoming more popular as a way to help with ailments such as sleep deprivation and anxiety, and CBD oils and tinctures have found their way into sports as an alternative to prescription medicine. Athletes who want mental and physical relief after subjecting their bodies to grueling exercises and competitions, without a mind-altering effect, turn to CBD for this relief.
MacKenzie McClain Hill, founder of a CBD-powered beauty and wellness brand called LumiBloom, has been a competitive elite athlete for most of her life. “I first got into CBD [when I was] looking for natural solutions [for] inflammation and pain. It allowed me not to rely on Ibuprofen or Advil, which I was popping twice a day to try to deal with pain,” she says. Hill was on the track team while she attended the University of California in Los Angeles and continued to train and compete around the world after graduating. LumiBloom’s products include CBD tinctures, teas, vitamins and spa products, like bath bombs and body oils.
At the peak of her athletic career, a typical day for Hill started on the track for three hours, followed by two hours in the weight room. She then would have active recovery ranging from Pilates or physical therapy to massage therapy or chiropractic care. “With CBD, after workouts I just felt more recovered, more relaxed and ready to perform,” Hill explains. She decided to create a CBD sports line for LumiBloom, so that athletes — or anyone who enjoys working out — could find relief for muscles and joints. The line includes a CBD pain-relieving spray, CBD recovery bath salts, a CBD muscle relief stick and a CBD muscle soothe stick.
“Whatever the sport, whether you go hardcore in the gym, are a weekend warrior or just trying to stay active, CBD products can support your workout,” Hill says. She particularly credits LumiBloom’s soothe stick — made with MCT oil, menthol, camphor, peppermint and, of course, CBD — in helping mitigate her post-workout soreness.
“With CBD, after workouts I just felt more recovered, more relaxed and ready to perform.”
CBD has also been attributed to alleviating mental stress. As stated by the American College of Sports Medicine in data from 2021, “Professional and elite athletes also face mental health challenges, and data indicate[s] that approximately 35 percent of elite athletes suffer from disordered eating, burnout, depression and/or anxiety. Limited privacy, inadequate recovery time and limited control or independence may also add to the stress of a professional or elite athlete.” While CBD should not be a substitute for consulting a doctor about symptoms such as mental health or physical pain, it can provide athletes with another option rather than conventional medicine when it comes to mental well-being.
“CBD is not addictive, and it is a natural product that can be used topically or orally without negative side effects associated with conventional remedies,” Hill adds. For athletes who have allergies to medications or can’t tolerate side effects that come from certain medications, CBD can act as a more natural replacement.
While CBD’s use among athletes is on the rise, its physiological, physical and cognitive effects are still not fully understood. According to the NLM, there is evidence that supports the potential use of CBD to improve the efficiency of recovery processes and sport-related fatigue, but not enough studies have been conducted to give proper recommendations for dosage and frequency of consumption. Though CBD appears to have some properties that may boost exercise recovery, more research must be done to find out why.
In terms of CBD’s counterpart, THC, the top reasons athletes use marijuana is to help them recover from tough workouts, reduce pain, improve sleep and alleviate anxiety, according to the New York Times (NYT) in a 2021 article. THC, however, especially when inhaled and smoked, can damage lungs, potentially leading to chronic bronchitis, according to the American Lung Association. Smoking can also cause an immune-compromised person to be more susceptible to lung infections.
However, according to the NYT article, a survey demonstrated that out of 600 cannabis users, 70 percent said that marijuana increased their enjoyment of exercise, and 80 percent of users said that it helped them recover better from exercise. The marijuana use ranged from smoking to edibles to vaping.
For cancer warriors and the multitude of side effects that come from chemotherapy and radiation, CBD can help with nausea, vomiting, depression and anxiety. Because of the health risks associated with smoking and vaping, edibles may be a safer option for those wanting to try cannabis, but a doctor’s consult is the best way to determine what works best for each individual.
As a greater number of athletes use cannabis for athletic recovery, it may soon become normalized in society as another part of an athlete’s recovery routine. “Currently, we are working on a post-workout [CBD] tincture you would take for overall recovery, so your body isn’t as sore the next day,” says Hill. “Some people like topical options to treat a specific area, while oral options help internally.” Whatever athletes choose, the cannabis industry will only continue to grow. As for Hill, she hopes “to get LumiBloom into the hands of as many people as possible to support them living their best, most authentic lives from the inside out.”
For more information about MacKenzie and LumiBloom, visit LumiBloom.com