There’s been a lot of, ahem, buzz about marijuana since Illinois became the 11th state to legalize it a few months ago. From funny encounters in dispensary lines to green-eyed Missourians lamenting our lack of access, weed is all the rage.

There’s an alternative, though, for legislatively challenged Missourians and even for people in Illinois who pass on grass but still crave some of the potential sports-related benefits.

Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of many compounds that’s found in cannabis, but it’s unlikely to make you feel high (unlike its chemical cousin THC). Many pro and amateur athletes have hopped on the CBD bandwagon, claiming it helps with performance and recovery. However, there’s limited scientific evidence backing these claims.

Until 2018, the DEA considered cannabidiol to be a Schedule 1 substance, with “no currently acceptable medical use and a high potential for abuse.” This made it difficult to impossible for researchers to examine its therapeutic potential.

Research is just starting to catch up to consumer demand now that the Schedule 1 designation has been lifted, with more than 225 ongoing clinical trials as of March. Most of our current knowledge about CBD for sports comes from athlete anecdotes and a small handful of studies that aren’t specific to sports.

But what do we know about CBD so far, and why are many athletes trying it?

CBD and Sports
“Athletes are almost always looking for some sort of pain relief or overall wellness boost,” said Dafna Revah, co-owner of CBD Kratom Shops, with 35 locations in Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, and Houston.

“Athletes in our stores tend to navigate to two main items: pain creams and sublingual tinctures [oils dropped under the tongue],” Revah continued. “The pain creams will help with localized pain, while tinctures, when used regularly, help regulate the body’s endocannabinoid system and help fight ailments like inflammation.”

Indeed, animal studies suggest that topical CBD can reduce pain and swelling in rats with injury and arthritis, but humans aren’t rats. Only a few small human studies have looked at oral CBD for pain relief, most of which focused on chronic health conditions like multiple sclerosis. Some of the studies also used a combination of THC and CBD, making it difficult to know if any benefits came from CBD alone.

In other words, we just don’t how effective CBD is for pain relief in athletes.

And yet, there’s no scientific evidence that CBD doesn’t relieve pain. Multisport athlete Josh Harris of St. Louis firmly believes that it does. “There was a time when I was popping Advil all day, every day,” Harris said. “I’ve been using CBD oil every day for a couple of years now, and I really can’t remember the last time I took anything else for pain.”

Floyd Landis of Floyd’s of Leadville CBD brand.

Some pro athletes — including former professional cyclist Floyd Landis and former NHL tough guy Riley Cote — have seen such positive results that they’ve launched their own CBD brands. Landis has also gone on the record to discuss how CBD has helped him control chronic anxiety.

What’s more, there’s some indication that CBD could help with performance anxiety. In two small studies, men who took oral CBD 90 minutes before speaking to an audience had less anxiety than those who took a placebo. Perhaps more impressive, CBD was just as effective as prescription antianxiety drugs in one of the two studies.

So, is CBD helpful for athletes? Experts can’t say for sure, but it’s promising. You may just have to try it and see — but carefully (see my sidebar).

Is it Safe and Legal?
Ready to give CBD a go? There are a few things you should know first.

  1. Check with your doctor first. CBD appears to be well-tolerated by most adults, but the FDA cautions that we really don’t know much about the impacts of long-term use. It’s best to err on the side of caution and get your doctor’s blessing.
  2. Let the buyer beware. CBD, which isn’t regulated by the FDA, can come from hemp plants, or it can come from cannabis plants that contain more THC. CBD from cannabis plants is illegal in most states without recreational marijuana and is also prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency. In other words, there’s some chance could fail a drug test if you take CBD. “If it does not say THC free, then likely it is not,” said Revah, who recommends finding a reputable store with staff who can answer your questions. You can also protect yourself by purchasing brands that have been tested by third-party labs.
  3. Ease into it. Take half of the dose on the label, if possible, and avoid taking your first dose immediately before training or competition. You may not feel anything at all, but that’s much better than having a bad reaction. You can gradually dial-in the quantity and timing of your dose.

And it Won’t Get Me High?

Full disclosure: I’ve dabbled in CBD. As a five-time-per-week cross-fitter and occasional runner with chronic hip pain and monkey mind, I need all the help I can get.

You know that saying, “Do I say, not as I do?” Well, reader, I didn’t heed my own advice from this article. A few weeks ago, I found myself drawn to an Instagram ad featuring beautiful, beaming, blissful CBD fans. I’m usually dubious of ads like this and have no idea why this one was so appealing, but I impulse-bought CBD.

And, reader, it gets worse. The day it arrived in the mail — and with no regard for my to-do list that day — I threw back the 40-milligram dose suggested on the label.

Have you seen that movie Limitless, where Bradley Cooper takes a magic pill and completely crushes life? That was me…for about 45 minutes.

Suddenly, I was high as a kite. The munchies set in. My fingers went tingly. I tried to lie down for a nap but became too paranoid to sleep. I contemplated calling 911 (not really, but it was pretty bad).

Did my product contain a lot of THC? Did I have some unusual reaction? I’ll never know. I have used other CBD products since that episode and will continue to do so; however, I’ll be taking my own advice from here on out.

Author: Kimberly Yawitz is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.