Pro athletes like Reed Boggs swear by the therapeutic anti-inflammatory effects of CBD, but what's all the hype really about? Max Ritter photo.
For most action sports athletes, popping a few Vitamin I tabs is pretty standard protocol before or after a burly day in the mountains. Pushing your body to its limit day after day takes a toll, and bikers, runners, skiers, and snowboarders alike are always looking for ways to take the edge off.
“As professional athletes, it’s our job to do everything possible to get our bodies into top notch shape,” says pro freeride mountain biker Reed Boggs, “But over-the-counter pain meds aren’t great for us, especially if we use them all the time.”
With podiums at Crankworx, the Freeride Mountain Bike World Tour, and a qualification for Red Bull Rampage 2019, Boggs is no stranger to pushing his body to the limit. Tired of taking over-the-counter meds after a big crash or a long training day, Boggs started using CBD cream for relief. “After a big day I’ll rub it on like Icy Hot,” he explained. “It really works to take the swelling and pain down and then I can turn around and ride again the next day.”
A few years ago, if you wanted a CBD tincture or oil, you’d have to seek it out in select states, and likely pay an arm and a leg for a tiny 2oz container. Now, walk into your local coffee shop and you can get your morning latte with a dose of CBD. Tons of athletes are endorsing CBD creams, salves, bath bombs, and drink mixes, designed to take down inflammation from high-intensity workouts.
Cannabis-Based Recovery Isn't What You Think
CBD, short for Cannabidoil, is one of over 100 different cannabinoid compounds found in the cannabis plant. While hemp and marijuana plants both come from the cannabis species, hemp plants contain less than 0.3% THC, where plants grown specifically for a marijuana harvest contain far more . Hemp-derived CBD is a powerful natural anti-inflammatory, providing localized pain relief, relief from muscle soreness and tension, as well as aiding in skin repair when used externally. Unlike THC, CBD is not psychoactive and does not produce a high, although its cultural proximity to marijuana has raised some eyebrows as CBD products have crept onto the market.
The basic function of CBD and how athletes will interact with it is relatively simple. All humans have an endocannabinoid system (ECS) which produces endocannabinoids that help regulate pain, immune responses, inflammation, and stress among other things. The body’s ECS includes nerve-related CB1 receptors, responsible for the psycho-active results from THC, and CB2 receptors, which moderate inflammatory and immune responses. Hemp-derived CBD is received by CB2 receptors - precisely why is has such a powerful anti-inflammatory effect when used for sore muscles. Essentially, CBD binds with the body’s own endocannabinoids to help regulate themselves and work more effectively. Topical use of CBD also allows this change to happen on a more localized level, instead of the chemical effect that over-the-counter meds like Ibuprofen have over your whole body.
An industrial hemp plant, where the magic happens. Wikimedia photo.
Aside from freeride mountain bikers, endurance athletes like pro ultra runner Jamie Richard swear by CBD. “I run almost every day and am always looking for ways to recover faster,” says Richard. While training for marathons, 50Ks and 50-mile races, Richard found herself using products like OLEO’s CBD drink mix more and more. OLEO’s drink mixes contain 25 mg of CBD per serving and dissolve in a glass of water just like a Nuun electrolyte tab. “If I use it right after I get done with a run, I wake up feeling significantly less sore and can keep training,” said Richard. “It’s been a key to getting ready for marathons and ultras.”
But Is It Legal?
In the past, the DEA classified anything derived from the cannabis plant illegal, whether or not it was hemp- or marijuana-based. The 2018 Farm Bill was a big turning point for CBD in the U.S. and a major catalyst for the overwhelming amount of CBD products we’ve been seeing on store shelves. In 2018, the Farm Bill declassified CBD as a Schedule 1 Drug and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) removed CBD from its list of banned substances for athletes. Cue hundreds of professional athletes now singing their praises of the previously controversial drug.
Hemp-derived CBD products are now legal in 46 states as long as they contains less than 0.3% THC. Idaho, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Kansas still do not allow cannabis products to be sold in any form.
“We’ve always had a ton of cyclists and climbers that have used our products,” said Curt Van Inwegen, CEO of Life Elements, a CBD company in California that specializes in topicals. “But athletes have been slow to publicly support it because it wouldn’t look good for some of their sponsors. After WADA removed it from its list of banned substances the uptake in interest has been exponential.”
With packaging like this, many CBD products are straying as far away as they can from the marijuana-based image the chemical has. Life Elements photo.
Life Elements also works with chiropractors and massage therapists who treat athletes. “If you’re heading out for a long ride or a big day in the mountains, you can use CBD to preload and delay the onset of soreness and inflammation,” explained Van Inwegen. “Afterwards, massaging it over sore muscles alleviates stiffness and tension. Massage therapists say it’s like slicing through hot butter.”
CBD salves are also effective in treating superficial skin damage such as road rash or calluses from climbing. “I’m not gonna say it’s this magic stuff that can do everything, but we just keep finding more and more benefits of it,” said Van Inwegen.
Can We Expect Widespread Adoption?
Although 2019 has been a big year for CBD, there’s still not universal clarity on its relation (or lack thereof) to THC. “There’s still a lot of confusion and concern which is why we still have to clearly print ‘NO THC’ on all of our products,” said Eric Smart, the CEO of Myaderm, a Colorado-based CBD company. “The packaging is professional and medical. About as non-weedy as we can make it, which is necessary for a lot of consumers right now.”
Boggs says that even with the stigma around marijuana, athletes have the power to use their voice to break those stereotypes and shine a brighter light on CBD products: “As athletes, we should promote it so more people feel like it’s something they can turn to if they need it.”
He adds that the action sports world has been quick to adopt the trend, saying that, “I think people are coming around to the idea that cannabis is about more than getting high, CBD products are a way for us to take better care of ourselves in a natural way and it’s important for more people to realize that.”
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