With the recent legalization of recreational Cannabis on October 17th it’s been a hot topic everywhere you look, including how it relates to sports and athletics. With so many claiming it’s curative and beneficial effects for all things health and wellness, we took a look to see if the claims stood up. Although there’s lots of promise, along with plenty of anecdotal data touting the benefits, it seems that the specific applications of cannabis to athletics are still in the early stages of understanding.
Before we take a look at Cannabis and how it can potentially aid athletes, let’s take a step back to review some important facts about the plant.
The Cannabis plant contains many therapeutic compounds. For centuries many different cultures have consumed the plant, reaping benefits related to physical health, spirituality, creativity as well as using it to create materials and eating as a food. Today there are multiple ways cannabis can be consumed both recreationally and therapeutically, including combustion (smoking), vaporization, oils, edibles and topical creams. There is a growing body of evidence to support that Cannabis can be beneficial to the body by working with a system that is designed to work with compounds in the plant.
The ECS is a system in the body which contains cannabinoid receptors found throughout the body. The receptors, which happen to outnumber any other receptor system, play roles in inflammation, nausea, memory, hormones, stress, and several other physiological functions related to keeping the body in balance. Knowledge of this system is still advancing, but the evidence suggests there could be potential applications for several chronic conditions.
The receptors found in the ECS are activated by cannabinoids, which are the chemical compounds found in the Cannabis plant. The most common and well known cannabinoids are THC and CBD. However, in addition to these two, the plant produces a variety of other lesser known phytocannabinoids and fragrance molecules called terpenes, which likely work together to produce unique therapeutic physiological benefits.
When consumed THC produces the psychoactive or ‘euphoric’ effects and is known to be helpful for pain, nausea, migraines, insomnia, appetite stimulation, mood boosting, relaxation and more.
When consumed CBD doesn’t have any psychoactive effects and is primarily known to be helpful for calmness, anxiety, seizures, sleep, soothing pain and more.
A quick google search for cannabis + athletes reveals that cannabis (including THC and/or CBD) can be helpful for a plethora of issues related to sports and athletics. Yet while the limited data doesn’t necessarily support all of these claims just yet (more on that below), that certainly doesn’t mean the therapeutic benefits don’t exist. As in the case for many natural or herbal substances, the anecdotal evidence for the therapeutic effects show that Cannabis’ utility and ability to benefit both depend on your unique physiology (age, sex, baseline hormone levels) and usage (administration of substance). This ultimately means lots of trial and error!
Pain management is a huge part of athletics. When you’re feeling the post workout DOMS, or an old injury flares up, it’s impossible to perform your best if you’re in pain. Studies have shown that both THC + CBD have been effective in managing pain. In fact, research has been able to show that the excellent anti-inflammatory properties in cannabis are similar to over the counter remedies such as aspirin. Topical applications, including both CBD + THC or CBD-only which absorb through the skin, are popular for helping to reduce inflammation in targeted areas, whereas as ingestible capsules tend to have a overall effects on the body. More research on how cannabinoid receptors work with the phytocannabinoids found in cannabis is progressing rapidly so stay tuned and on the lookout for more analgesic products targeted specifically for athletes and pain.
Although the negative stigma associated with Cannabis may lead one to conclude that cannabis use would result in poor performance because of slow reactions times, reduced coordination and accuracy, many users’ experiences demonstrate that this is not the case! With the right type, dose and method, Cannabis may be helpful in athletics for a variety of reasons. Helping to reduce the monotony by getting into a ‘flow state’ faster during long or boring endurance workouts is one way cannabis may help. Enhanced focus and creative thinking around visualization of goal achievement is another. Further evidence, particularly applicable to extreme sports, has shown that the non-psychoactive effects of CBD have been helpful in decreasing anxiety and fear memories, which may result in enhanced sports performance. In addition, Cannabis’ proven ability to support sleep and therefore recovery, ultimately has an indirect effect on performance as well.
While many athletes claim that cannabis enhances their performance, a recent review of literature in 2018 focused on the health and performance of athletes does not yet show any evidence that proves cannabis enhances performance. It’s important to note however that limited data exists when it comes to exercise and cannabis (as of march 2017 only 15 studies had investigated the effects of THC in relation to exercise protocols), and with the further changes in legalization and greater acceptance in society, it’s likely further attention will be granted here. Some key buzzworthy areas of focus to watch out for may include: additional research on pain management, concussion related symptoms, nausea in endurance sports, and cannabis use in relation exercise induced asthma (bronchodilation).
In summary, although Cannabis is currently being touted as a panacea for all things health and wellness it’s still important to recognize that beyond pain management the data for it’s application to enhancing performance is limited at this point in time. This certainly is not to say that Cannabis isn’t effective, it just means that you may need to do a lot of trial and error to see if Cannabis works with your physiology. That said, if you do decide to experiment with cannabis, the best advice we’re seeing over and over is to “start low and go slow” as you learn if cannabis does ultimately benefit your training.
Got more questions about Cannabis for athletes? It’s a hot topic and one we’re expecting to be hearing a lot more about in the post-legalization era. With the limited data available though, it’s even more interesting to have conversations around what helps or hinders your personal performance. Join us in the conversation over on our Instagram or Facebook. We are #ReflexNation.
1. Ethan B Russo. 2008. Cannabinoids in the management of difficult to treat pain. Ther Clin Risk Manag. Feb; 4(1): 245–259.
2. J. Manzanares, M.D. Julian and A. Carrascosa. 2006. Role of the Cannabinoid System in Pain Control and Therapeutic Implications for the Management of Acute and Chronic Pain Episodes. Current Neuropharmacology. 4, 239-257.
3. Huestis, M. A., Mazzoni, I., and Rabin, O. 2011. Cannabis in sport: anti-doping perspective. Sports Med. 41, 949–966.
4. A Ware, Mark & Jensen, Dennis & Barrette, Amy & Vernec, Alan & Derman, Wayne. 2018. Cannabis and the Health and Performance of the Elite Athlete. Clinical journal of sport medicine : official journal of the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine. 28. 480-484.
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