CBD for athletes: Can it support recovery?

benefits of cbd for athletes

CBD for athletes: Can it support recovery?

  • CBD is becoming increasingly popular among elite athletes as a wellness supplement.
  • Early research suggests CBD may help to support pain relief, reduce inflammation and improve sleep quality, which could in turn support recovery and performance.
  • CBD is the only cannabinoid that is not prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
  • Athletes should be aware of the risks of using full- and broad-spectrum CBD, as they contain other cannabinoids that are prohibited by WADA.
  • As a precaution, Naturecan does not recommend CBD for athletes who are subject to regular doping tests.

Recovery is an essential part of any athlete’s training regime. Rest and quality sleep are vitally important for allowing the body to repair itself after intense exercise – increasing muscle tissue growth and reducing the risk of injury – while also helping athletes to stay mentally sharp and focused.

Cannabidiol (CBD), a natural compound found in cannabis and hemp, is growing in popularity among elite athletes as a natural way to potentially support recovery. 

Research indicates that cannabinoids like CBD are the second most popular substance among contact sports athletes, and that one third of cyclists, runners and triathletes use or have used cannabinoids with the aim of supporting recovery.

In addition, more than one quarter of professional rugby players have used CBD as a natural alternative to painkillers, many of whom report it could help with recovery and sleep.

CBD is one of over 100 compounds known as cannabinoids found in the Cannabis sativa plant. It is the main active ingredient in an ever-growing range of hemp-based products, from CBD oils, capsules and snacks to CBD gummies, balms and beauty products.

Unlike the controlled cannabinoid THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), CBD is non-intoxicating and does not cause a “high”.  Early research indicates that CBD offers many potential health benefits, and may be able to ease inflammation, support pain relief, aid with stress, alleviate low mood, nourish and aid with some skin problems and help aid sleeplessness.

CBD products must contain non-detectable THC and be derived from hemp containing less than 0.2% or 0.3% THC in order to be legal in the EU, USA and many other countries.

what is cbd for athletes

How does CBD work?

CBD influences the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), a vast cell-signalling system found throughout the body that regulates many important processes, including sleep, mood, pain and appetite. The primary function of the ECS is to keep the body in a balanced internal state (or homeostasis).

When consumed, CBD is thought to support the function of the ECS indirectly. One way it does this is by preventing enzymes from breaking down endocannabinoids (cannabinoids produced by the body that facilitate communication within the ECS). In doing so, CBD may be able to indirectly support a wide range of processes, including sleep and recovery, and potentially help the body to stay balanced and healthy.

Can CBD help athletes with recovery?

Although there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence for CBD’s therapeutic potential among athletes and other users, clinical research is still in the early stages. However, preliminary studies suggest that CBD may contribute to supporting pain relief and aiding to reduce inflammation and improve sleep quality, all of which could in turn support recovery and athletic performance.

cbd for athletes sleep

CBD and sleep

Research indicates that CBD may have a calming effect on the nervous system, which may in turn support sleep.

Indeed, some studies have found a positive correlation between CBD use and improved sleep quality among adults with sleeping problems. 

Moreover, a 2017 review of research into cannabis and sleep concluded that CBD may have the potential to help with common sleep disorders, such as occasional sleeplessness, as well as improve daytime energy levels.

CBD and pain

Research into the effects of CBD on supporting pain relief is also promising. In some studies, researchers discovered a link between topical CBD use and a significant reduction in chronic back pain. In addition, some animal studies suggest that CBD could aid in suppressing chronic inflammatory and neuropathic pain.

How exactly does CBD do this? As mentioned above, CBD affects the body in an indirect way, by preventing enzymes from breaking down endocannabinoids. In doing so, CBD increases concentrations of certain endocannabinoids, such as anandamide. Anandamide is linked to increased pain tolerance, as well as improved mood and reduced stress – which can all contribute to improved sleep and recovery.

CBD for athletic performance

Although the early stage research in this area is promising, many more studies are needed to fully understand and support the potential benefits of CBD.

Is CBD a banned substance?

No, CBD is not prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). However, all other cannabinoids, including THC, are prohibited at any concentration.

This means that there is a risk of an anti-doping breach for athletes using full-spectrum products, which contain CBD along with THC and minor cannabinoids, and broad-spectrum products, which contain minor cannabinoids but almost no THC.

Therefore, even though Naturecan CBD has non-detectable levels of THC (<0.01%), as a precaution we do not recommend CBD for athletes who are subject to regular doping tests.

The safest option for competing athletes is CBD isolate, which is CBD in its purest form, with no other cannabinoids. However, the absence of minor cannabinoids means that CBD isolate does not offer the potential benefits of the entourage effect, a phenomenon whereby all the cannabinoids and other hemp compounds work together to enhance the oil’s natural properties.

To minimise the risk of a failed drug test, athletes looking to support their recovery with CBD should look for reputable sellers that offer proof of third-party lab testing and can verify the cannabinoid concentrations in their products – usually through a Certificate of Analysis (CoA).

Is CBD safe?

Yes, CBD is generally safe and well-tolerated, according to a review by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

While there is a chance that some users may experience side effects, these are rare and mild, and often the result of using low quality products or exceeding the recommended dosage. Side effects may include a dry mouth or lightheadedness.

Like most food supplements, CBD can also interact with certain medications, so if you are taking prescribed medication, or have any existing medical conditions, it’s recommended that you consult a medical professional before using CBD.

What are the best CBD products for athletes?

The answer to this question largely depends on what an athlete wants to get from using CBD.

Ingestible CBD products, such as CBD oil and CBD capsules, enter the bloodstream and affect the whole body systemically – which means they may be more suitable for athletes looking to support sleep.

On the other hand, topical products, such as CBD muscle balm and CBD joint balm, can be applied directly to tired or aching areas for a rapid, localised effect – making them ideal for athletes looking to support post-exercise recovery.

Athletes can also use ingestible and topical products in combination, while monitoring their daily dosage.

cbd balm for athletes


Clinical and anecdotal evidence suggests that CBD may potentially offer a natural and effective means for athletes to support their recovery and sleep. However, more large-scale and long-term studies are needed to confirm this. 

In addition, education on the effects and risks of using cannabinoid products must also improve in order to protect athletes from anti-doping breaches and ensure that the potential benefits of CBD are made accessible for all athletes.

Disclaimer: There is currently insufficient evidence to support the use of CBD in the condition(s) mentioned above and this text by no means reflects recommended uses. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional if you are taking prescribed medication or are thinking of using CBD for your condition.

Written by Alex Coughlan and reviewed by our compliance experts, Pippa Lindsay-Murray, Head of Regulatory Affairs at Naturecan, BSc Hons Biology, and Imogen Blackshaw, Senior Regulatory Compliance Officer at Naturecan, BSc Public Health Nutrition and Registered Associate Nutritionist (ANutr)


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Alex Coughlan
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