I left the pro athlete world a long time ago. I no longer compete. I don’t train with the intensity and volume it’d take to win races. But I do pay attention to what’s going on in that world, and I still have a lot of friends who never left it. Developments there often foreshadow developments in the rest of the health world. And after things like keto, MCT oil/ketones, and collagen, the performance hack that’s blowing up among elite athletes is CBD oil. Almost everyone I talk to who puts in serious training and competing time (in a variety of sports and pursuits) is dabbling with CBD.
What are they using it for?
There are two main claims when it comes to CBD and fitness.
- That it improves sleep.
- That it reduces pain, improves workout recovery, and helps you get back to training and competition.
Do their claims have any scientific support?
CBD and Sleep
A big review of CBD and sleep found that CBD increased sleep time and reduced the number of times people woke up during the night, improved sleep quality, reduced REM-related behavioral disorder (where you act out your dreams in your sleep), and improved sleep in anxiety patients.
Sleep is one of the biggest weak spots for many athletes. They sacrifice sleep for gym time. They train late at night under bright lights and come home energized and unable to get to bed. They focus on the workouts rather than the recovery. But here’s the thing: the more you train, the more sleep you need. The more performance you need to wring out of your body, the higher your sleep requirements are going to stack. There’s no getting around it. Sleep is one of the most important things to get right if you want to improve performance and make your hard work count for something.
But let’s get more granular. You want details?
Sleep deprivation ruins your posture and makes you more liable to make technique mistakes, get injured, and compromise movement quality and power. If you can’t coordinate your limbs, you won’t succeed in the gym or on the field (and you’ll probably make a critical mistake that gets you hurt).
Sleep deprivation kills your judgment. If you’re not thinking clearly, you’ll make silly mistakes and dangerous choices. Go for the last rep on the deadlift when your back’s about to give out, that sort of thing.
Sleep deprivation squanders your adaptation to training. Enjoy the insulin sensitivity and improved energy utilization training provides? Sleep loss blunts both. Like gaining muscle in response to lifting heavy things? Sleep loss inhibits muscle protein synthesis.
Sleep deprivation makes eating well harder. If you’re training for fat loss and body composition, you know that eating is well over half the battle. A single night of bad sleep makes you more vulnerable to the rewarding effects of junk food. It becomes harder to resist and more addictive.
Sleep deprivation causes muscle loss. A lack of sleep increases urinary nitrogen, a sign that the body is breaking down lean muscle mass.
So, is there a connection between sleep, CBD, and performance?
That hasn’t been directly tested. We know two things:
- CBD can help people who are having trouble sleeping get more sleep.
- Sleep is ergogenic. If you aren’t sleeping, you aren’t maximizing your performance in the gym and adaptation to your training.
That’s not to say you can’t get good sleep without CBD. It’s not a requirement for good sleep. But if CBD is helping athletes get better sleep than they would otherwise, it’s also giving them a performance and training boost.
CBD and Pain, Adaptation, and Recovery
One of the biggest quandaries an athlete faces is how to balance pain management, training adaptation, and workout recovery.
You can use ice baths to get back in the game quicker, but you might reduce training adaptations.
You can take two days off after a really tough workout and maximize the training effect, but you won’t be able to compete in the interim.
You can pound NSAIDs to reduce pain, but it might slow down your recovery and impair your adaptation to the exercise.
Everything has a tradeoff. And if you lean too far in one direction, you’ll pay the price. Back when I was competing, I leaned hard toward “getting back out there.” I ate ice cream and grains by the gallon to replenish the energy I expended, popped Tylenol like candy to dull the pain long enough to let me get through the next workout. It all worked out in the end (I wouldn’t be doing this if I hadn’t messed up so badly), but boy if I didn’t cut it close.
Where Does CBD Fit In?
CBD is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. It can block neurotoxicity from oxidative stress. It lowers inflammatory cytokines and raises anti-inflammatory cytokines. It may reduce a person’s reliance on opioids for pain control. It can even synergize with NSAIDs, reducing the amount you need to get the same effect. And it can do all this without causing liver damage. Sounds uniformly beneficial, right?
Be careful. Anti-inflammation can be a double-edged sword. After all, inflammation isn’t wholly pathogenic:
The inflammatory response is the healing response.
Training adaptations occur in response to the inflammatory effect of exercise.
The inflammatory reactive oxygen species that we’re all so worried about also serve as cellular messengers that provoke the creation of new mitochondria and the production of endogenous antioxidants like glutathione.
This is hormesis—the application of good stressors to make us healthier, stronger, and more resilient.
NSAIDs have many of the same effects, like blocking inflammatory cytokines, and have been used by athletes for decades to reduce pain, improve acute performance, and hasten the return to competition. They’ve also been shown to reduce muscle adaptations to resistance training and impair healing even as they reduce pain.
One of CBD’s anti-inflammatory effects is to blunt the release of interleukin 6 (IL-6), an inflammatory cytokine. This isn’t always helpful, as studies show. A hard training session spikes IL-6, and, at least in animal studies using IL-6 knockouts (mice who produce no IL-6 at all), lack of an IL-6 response tends to reduce muscle and adipose tissue adaptations to exercise. NSAIDs are another anti-inflammatory drug that block IL-6 and have been shown to impair muscle adaptations to resistance training in the young and improve them in the elderly. In other words, NSAIDs impair the hormetic stress effect of exercise in the young (who tend to have a lower stress burden and higher stress resilience) and enable it in the elderly (who tend to have lower stress resilience).
What Does This Mean For You?
Well, it depends on who you are and your situation.
High stress lifestyle? CBD can probably help you blunt some of your underlying stress to give the training a bigger effect. Low stress lifestyle? CBD might blunt it too much and render your training less adaptive.
As for CBD’s effect on pain means, there are a lot of unanswered questions that I trust will be answered in due time.
CBD may help mask the pain from injuries by exerting anti-inflammatory effects while slowing down healing. However, if your baseline inflammatory status is high, reducing inflammation may be just what you need to improve healing.
CBD may help reduce pain by speeding up the healing process. There’s even some evidence in rodents that CBD can speed up the healing process of a fractured bone. Does that happen in humans? Does that happen in other types of injuries? Maybe.
That said, if taking CBD before a workout is the only thing that lets you actually get through the workout without pain, it’s going to be better than not taking it. I know of a few people who swear by CBD for joint relief; they couldn’t do what they love without it.
We have a lot more to learn about CBD and training. The benefits for athletes who need help with sleep are clear and well-established. The benefits for athletes who need help with pain and recovery are murkier—we simply don’t know the details yet. It’s likely that CBD will help athletes recover in some situations and not in others. But for the most part, it’s relatively low-risk. Give it a shot and see what you notice. The beauty of it all is that even if CBD impairs your training adaptation, it’s not set in stone. The safety profile is good. The research is only growing. You can always drop it and keep training and regain your gains.
That’s it for today, folks. Have you used CBD to enhance your training? Did it work? Did it hurt? Tell us all about it down below!
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Lundberg TR, Howatson G. Analgesic and anti-inflammatory drugs in sports: Implications for exercise performance and training adaptations. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2018;28(11):2252-2262.
Kogan NM, Melamed E, Wasserman E, et al. Cannabidiol, a Major Non-Psychotropic Cannabis Constituent Enhances Fracture Healing and Stimulates Lysyl Hydroxylase Activity in Osteoblasts. J Bone Miner Res. 2015;30(10):1905-13.
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