CBD for Athletes: Does Hemp Oil Help with Athletic Performance?

Illustration of an athlete with running with CDD products surrounding her.
Written by Livvy Ashton | Last updated: November 17, 2023

The hype on CBD is at an all-time high, and nothing indicates that it will change any time soon. On the contrary, people are actually more into cannabis than ever thanks to the versatile health benefits of CBD oil. From reducing inflammation to relieving pain and anxiety, there are plenty of areas where modern people can find answers to their health concerns using plant-based cannabinoids.

For many folks out there, cannabis and sports may not be a relevant combo, but they don’t yet realize their perception is driven by an almost hundred-year-old stigma resulting from, let’s say, a combination of bad luck, racism, and conflict of interests.

But let’s say you’ve never heard any myths related to cannabis. You both have a clean slate. Tabula rasa, as they would say in Latin.

Would you believe that CBD, one of the major cannabis compounds, can be a worthy addition to one’s fitness routine?

How can CBD affect your achievements in sports?

Is there a point in using CBD as a sportsperson if you’re not a professional athlete?

Come and get your answers.

How Does CBD Work for Athletes?

A running man in the road.

If you want to get a better grasp of how CBD works for athletes, we can’t avoid a short stop by the endocannabinoid system (ECS) and its relationship with cannabinoids.

In simple terms, the ECS is a network of cannabinoid receptors, neurotransmitters, and enzymes that occur throughout your body. They are present in every organ system and control a wide range of biological functions, such as:

  • Immune response
  • Sensations of fear and pleasure
  • Body temperature
  • Sleep-wake cycle
  • Appetite
  • Cell energy regulation
  • Pain perception
  • Reproduction

The role of the ECS is to keep the body in a state of internal balance (homeostasis), which provides harmony between the above processes and ensures that a person stays healthy.

Whenever the ECS suffers from deficiencies due to persistent disturbance of the said balance, this can contribute to a wide range of chronic diseases, from persistent pain to insomnia, autoimmune conditions, depression, and neurodegenerative disorders.

This is where CBD steps in.

CBD is a phytocannabinoid found in cannabis plants — both hemp and marijuana. Unlike its cousin THC, CBD won’t get you high because it lacks intoxicating properties. While THC binds directly to the cannabinoid receptors in the brain — causing the signature high — CBD indirectly modulates their activity, ensuring optimal functioning.

CBD does it through the signaling of the ECS. When CBD interacts with our master regulatory network, it signals it to produce more of its endogenous cannabinoids while slowing down their breakdown (1). As a result, the ECS can use endocannabinoids more effectively thanks to their longer duration in the bloodstream.

Benefits of CBD for Athletes

Sprinter Running Man

The discovery of the ECS has provided researchers with the necessary tools to explore the health benefits of cannabinoids such as CBD and THC. CBD has three major effects on the body: it reduces inflammation, improves stress management, and mitigates pain signaling to the brain.

All of the above create ripe opportunities for athletes to boost their performance and improve regeneration.

Here’s how you can benefit from CBD oil if you’re a sportsperson.

CBD for Athletic Recovery

Sleep is an essential part of our lives, but when it comes to athletes, it becomes of paramount importance. Athletes are exposed to sleep deficiencies due to the extreme stress they put themselves into during competition and while preparing themselves for the season. Those trying to relieve their sleep issues often turn to OTC or prescription sleeping pills, which can have a devastating effect on their sleep cycle in the long run.

CBD has the ability to regulate the body’s sleep cycle by reducing stress, anxiety, and pain. These three factors contribute to sleep deprivation, so the next time you have trouble falling asleep before an upcoming game or you’re crippled by back pain, consider adding CBD to your routine.

CBD can also reduce the release of cortisol through physical activity. The adrenal system, which produces the stress hormone, regulates the body’s response to physical stressors, such as exercises. Whenever a person engages in physical activity, the adrenal glands begin to produce more cortisol into the bloodstream (2).

As reported by a small study conducted by the Department of Neuropsychiatry and Medical Psychology at the University of Brazil, CBD can lower the secretion of cortisol, thereby reducing its concentration in the blood. This can have a positive effect on athletic recovery and make CBD the holy grail of post-workout supplements.

CBD for Inflammation

Acute inflammation is a natural physical response to stress or injuries; it’s also an essential part of recovery. However, chronic inflammation is anything but good for your health and can significantly compromise your ability to engage in exercises. A study conducted by the Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience at the National Institute of Health (NIH) showed that CBD has potent anti-inflammatory effects on the body and can suppress inflammatory responses by interacting with cannabinoid receptors located in the immune cells.

On top of that, the study reported that CBD along with its modified derivatives significantly reduces neuropathic pain without causing any kind of dependent or signs of building tolerance in rodent models (3).

A study conducted on arthritic inflammation discovered that the topical application of CBD provides therapeutic effects without apparent side effects. The study was conducted on mice, but it has a high degree of relevance, as all animals have the same endocannabinoid system (4).

These are promising news for athletes looking for a natural and safe alternative to OTC painkillers.

CBD for Pain Management

Working out and pain go hand in hand, but if you push yourself too hard, the pain may arise to the point it will prevent you from performing simple activities, let alone making progress in your niche.

Athletes are plagued by muscle soreness and injuries and hence they often turn to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen. In severe cases, doctors may prescribe opioid-based pain killers, but these medications are highly addictive and can further deteriorate the condition, not to mention high risk for abuse and addiction.

CBD, on the other hand, offers a much safer way to fight pain. Not only does it reduce inflammation, but it also acts on vanilloid TRPV1 receptors and opioid receptors to alter pain signaling in the brain (5). As a result, the pain becomes manageable. Another receptor involved in pain control is the 5-HT1A serotonin receptor, whose activity also happens to be modulated by CBD (6).

The risk of addiction is nonexistent when it comes to using CBD for pain relief. In fact, some studies have shown that CBD should not be taken with alcohol but it may help treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms as well as with heroin and opioids with their compulsive behaviors.

CBD for Pre-workout

Aside from its anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, CBD is also capable of boosting the user’s energy, focus, and performance. In essence, people who take CBD before workouts describe this sensation as being able to focus on here-and-now. Whether you run long distances, lift weights, or engage in activities that require endurance, CBD may prove useful.

This is just one of the many reasons why CBD for athletes has made big headlines in the fitness industry. When CBD is taken prior to workout, CBD can reduce the burning in the muscles and fatigue. Imagine that you’re trying to break your personal records, but your muscles are hot as hell. Yet, you can still push through it for a bit more time, and eventually, you succeed. In the end, the discomfort and muscle stress go away — that’s how CBD is supposed to work.

CBD for Appetite Control

CBD can help athletes control their appetite by regulating the activity of the ECS. If you want to lose body fat more efficiently, CBD will provide feelings of calm and relaxation without causing munchies. Unlike THC, CBD is actually considered a mild appetite suppressant. If you have problems with compulsive eating, CBD can modulate that behavior by acting on your GABA-A receptor, which is sort of a handbrake for the brain when it gets overexcited

For those with low insulin sensitivity, CBD oil can improve that marker, providing additional space for glucose and glycogen storage in the liver and muscle (7). Studies also suggest that cannabinoids contribute to smaller waist circumferences and lower rates of abdominal obesity in regular cannabis users in comparison with the general population.

CBD for Anxiety

There is a large body of research, including human clinical trials, suggesting CBD’s efficacy for anxiety-related disorders. Athletes, just like other people put under regular stress, suffer from recurring periods of anxiety, perhaps caused by peer pressure, pre-game concerns, and injuries.

The scientific literature shows how CBD oil can help reduce anxiety in patients with a social anxiety disorder (8). Furthermore, CBD can reduce the severity of traumatic memories, a signature symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (9).

Last but not least, research has found that oral administration of CBD leads to a reduction in anxiety levels in subjects before giving a public speech (10).

Considering the above, we can revel in CBD’s ability to reduce anxiety and fear, especially when it comes to professional sports.

Is CBD Legal for Athletes?

Hemp Flower and Stethoscope with White Background.

The increasing popularity of CBD among athletes has forced regulatory bodies to reconsider their classification of CBD. Until recently, athletes had to choose dangerous prescription drugs over CBD oil due to potential sanctions from their sports associations.

The tides began to change when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) updated their schedule of prohibited substances by removing CBD from the list. CBD oil is now legal for athletes, including those participating in the Olympics, as long as it contains 0.3% THC or less.

The scope of athletes using CBD oil reaches further than the extreme level. Dancers, runners, MMA fighters, and many other professionals and amateur sportspeople also fall under the supervision of WADA.

As cannabis legalization is rolling across the United States, we can expect more research into the efficacy and safety of CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids. This may cause major sports leagues and organizations to open their eyes to new opportunities on a broad scale.

Does CBD Show Up On A Drug Test?

Laboratory Analysis

No, CBD won’t show up on a drug test. Drug screenings are designed to look for THC and its metabolites.

Full-spectrum CBD oils contain 0.3% THC or less, so it’s virtually impossible to get a false-positive result for THC on a drug test if you take this type of CBD oil. You would need to take 1,900 mg CBD daily to get such a score. Should that happen, you can tell your coach about it and request another screening.

Those who want to avoid the risk of testing false positive for THC should look for broad-spectrum CBD or isolates; the first type contains all the compounds found in hemp but with THC removed during the later stage of extraction, while CBD isolate refers to pure, separated CBD that has no odor, no flavor, and contains 99% of cannabidiol.

Best Type of CBD for Athletes

Full Spectrum CBD oil with a wooden background.

There’s a debate over the efficacy of full-spectrum CBD extracts and isolates. Here’s how to distinguish between these two products — and which is better in certain scenarios.

Full Spectrum CBD vs Isolate for Athletes

As mentioned, full-spectrum CBD is a product made from the whole hemp plant. As such, it contains not only CBD but also other cannabinoids (including traces of THC) and terpenes. Researchers believe these compounds enhance the effectiveness of CBD; this phenomenon is known as the entourage effect and refers to synergistic effects between the said molecules.

Preliminary studies and many cannabis geneticists have suggested that cannabinoids and terpenes work better together than in isolation. When you take a look at the market, most companies start with full-spectrum CBD oils, steadily expanding their product selection with other formats and spectra.

CBD isolate, on the other hand, contains pure cannabidiol. The product is devoid of other cannabinoids and terpenes. Researchers argue that isolates are inferior to full-spectrum products in terms of their therapeutic potential, but at the same time, they may be the last resort for people whose leagues restrict the use of full-spectrum or broad-spectrum products. Isolates also come in handy if you are allergic to certain compounds in hemp.

Athletes often add some CBD isolate to full-spectrum oils to boost the amount of CBD they get in each serving.

Different Forms of CBD for Athletes

CBD Products and Hemp Flower with seeds on blue background

After digesting all the information we’ve presented so far, you may ask “what form of CBD will be the best in my case?” Choosing the right product type boils down to figuring out what works best for your lifestyle — and whether you value potency over convenience, or the other way round.

Here’s a brief overview of the popular choices among athletes who decide to try CBD.

CBD Oil for Athletes

CBD oil is the most common form of ingestion. It comes in different sizes and concentrations, so figuring the right dosage will require you to go through some trial and error. CBD oil is made from industrial hemp, so it won’t make you high. To take CBD in the form of oil, you need to apply the desired amount under your tongue using a dropper attached to your product. After holding the oil in the mouth for up to 60 seconds, the CBD will absorb through sublingual capillaries, avoiding the liver and the first-pass effect.

CBD oral drops usually take effect within 15–30 minutes after administration. Their bioavailability has been measured at around 35%, which is higher than with oral products such as capsules and gummies. Bioavailability is a figure expressing the amount of CBD that ends up in the user’s bloodstream.

The effects of CBD oil last up to 6 hours.

Alternative forms of CBD for those who are apprehensive about the hempy taste of full-spectrum CBD oil:

  • CBD capsules: like most supplements out there, CBD is available in a convenient soft gel form. CBD capsules contain a predetermined amount of CBD per serving, so you don’t need to calculate the dosage. Capsules are also more discreet than CBD oil and can be taken anywhere on the go without the fear of leaking out in the bag. However, since capsules need to be processed in the digestive system, they have a slower onset than CBD oil, kicking in after anywhere between 40–90 minutes.
  • CBD gummies: gummies are the most popular type of CBD edibles. They look just like regular gummy bears but with added CBD. Similar to capsules, gummies must be metabolized in the digestive tract, so their effects may come with a little ‘lag.’ On the other hand, they last longer than sublingual or vaporized CBD, up to 10 hours.
  • CBD vape pen: CBD vape pens contain CBD vape oil, which is a mixture of CBD extract and thinners like vegetable glycerin or propylene glycol. Vaporized CBD absorbs into the bloodstream through the lung tissues, providing the fastest effects of all consumption methods. When you inhale CBD through a vape pen, it starts to act within 5–10 minutes after inhalation, lasting 3–4 hours.

CBD Cream for Athletes

The use of CBD cream and other topicals has skyrocketed among athletes. CBD creams, balms, skin lotions, and patches are widely available online and in local health stores. Athletes use them for muscle strains, inflammation, and injuries. CBD topicals have been highlighted in multiple studies for their ability to regulate inflammation and pain through their interaction with cannabinoid receptors in the skin. That’s why athletes are switching from OTC or opioid-based painkillers to natural solutions like CBD creams.

Whenever you’re shopping for a CBD topical, make sure it’s made of organic ingredients, without GMO and synthetic additives that could negatively affect its quality. But most importantly, look for third-party lab reports to confirm the product’s potency and purity.

You can use CBD topicals to the affected area as many times as you need, reapplying it whenever you feel the effects are starting to disappear.

Final Verdict: Is CBD A Viable Health Supplement for Athletes?

The CBD boom has created many opportunities for athletes that seek natural alternatives for sports-related ailments, such as pain, inflammation, anxiety, and sleep deprivation. While CBD isn’t a miracle cure for all your health problems, it can surely contribute to a healthy fitness regimen, balancing the master regulatory network known as the endocannabinoid system.

Once you ditch the stigma-driven presumptions that cannabis and sports can’t fit together in one sentence, you’ll start seeing windows of opportunities to grow as a sports person both physically and mentally. As scientists are fueling more resources into the studies on the health benefits of CBD, we may soon discover new options in which CBD oil can aid those living active lifestyles. Whether you want to reduce pain, boost regeneration in a natural way, or push yourself beyond the limits, cannabidiol will make for a fine addition to your arsenal of supplements.


  1. Fine, Perry G, and Mark J Rosenfeld. “The endocannabinoid system, cannabinoids, and pain.” Rambam Maimonides medical journal vol. 4,4 e0022. 29 Oct. 2013, doi:10.5041/RMMJ.10129
  2. Hiller-Sturmhöfel, S, and A Bartke. “The endocrine system: an overview.” Alcohol health and research world vol. 22,3 (1998): 153-64.
  3. Hammell, DC et al. “Transdermal cannabidiol reduce inflammation and pain-related behaviors in a rat model of arthritis.” European journal of pain (London, England) vol. 20,6 (2016): 936-48. doi:10.1002/ejp.818
  4. Xiong, Wei et al. “Cannabinoids suppress inflammatory and neuropathic pain by targeting α3 glycine receptors.” The Journal of experimental medicine vol. 209,6 (2012): 1121-34. doi:10.1084/jem.20120242
  5. Russo, Ethan B. “Cannabinoids in the management of difficult to treat pain.” Therapeutics and clinical risk management vol. 4,1 (2008): 245-59. doi:10.2147/term.s1928
  6. Russo, Ethan B et al. “Agonistic properties of cannabidiol at 5-HT1a receptors.” Neurochemical research vol. 30,8 (2005): 1037-43. doi:10.1007/s11064-005-6978-1
  7. Ignatowska-Jankowska, Bogna et al. “Cannabidiol decrease body weight gain in rats: involvement of CB2 receptors.” Neuroscience letters vol. 490,1 (2011): 82-4. doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2010.12.031
  8. Crippa, José Alexandre S et al. “Neural basis of anxiolytic effects of cannabidiol (CBD) in generalized social anxiety disorder: a preliminary report.” Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England) vol. 25,1 (2011): 121-30. doi:10.1177/0269881110379283
  9. Stern, Cristina A J, et al. “On disruption of fear memory by reconsolidation blockade: evidence from cannabidiol treatment.” Neuropsychopharmacology: official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology vol. 37,9 (2012): 2132-42. doi:10.1038/npp.2012.63
  10. Zuardi, A W et al. “Effects of ipsapirone and cannabidiol on human experimental anxiety.” Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England) vol. 7,1 Suppl (1993): 82-8. doi:10.1177/026988119300700112

Livvy is a registered nurse (RN) and board-certified nurse midwife (CNM) in the state of New Jersey. After giving birth to her newborn daughter, Livvy stepped down from her full-time position at the Children’s Hospital of New Jersey. This gave her the opportunity to spend more time writing articles on all topics related to pregnancy and prenatal care.

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