CBD for Athletes: Research, Benefits, and Side Effects

  • Nonpsychoactive pain treatment
  • Side effects
  • Legality for athletic events
  • What to know before trying CBD
  • Takeaway

Woman in a hoodie eating a chocolate-covered protein bar

Megan Rapinoe. Lamar Odom. Rob Gronkowski. Current and former professional athletes in many sports are endorsing the use of cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD.

CBD is one of over 100 different cannabinoids that occur naturally in the cannabis plant. Though research on CBD is limited, it does show promise in treating a number of conditions associated with athletic competition, like joint pain, inflammation, and muscle soreness.

CBD has many of the same potential benefits as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), but without the psychoactive effects. Based on what we know right now, here’s why athletes from around the sporting world are getting into CBD and what you should know about it.

CBD is a nonpsychoactive treatment for pain

Research suggests that CBD shows promise in helping relieve pain and reduce inflammation, which could be useful for athletes participating in intense exercise. While THC can also be used to treat pain, it may cause unwanted side effects and could affect athletic performance.

A 2004 study on lab rats suggests that THC may impair short-term memory, while CBD doesn’t appear to.

And a 2018 report from the World Health Organization indicates that CBD doesn’t seem to have the potential for misuse or dependence — unlike other pain-relieving substances, like THC and opioids.

In fact, some research suggests CBD could be used as a way to treat addiction to opioids and other substances with risks of dependence.

Among some medical circles, there’s controversy over CBD’s “nonpsychoactive” label, since it does technically act on the same cannabinoid type 1 (CB1) receptors in the brain as THC.

But because CBD works differently on those receptors, the effects are different, and it won’t get you high.

Side effects

Some people experience side effects from CBD, but they’re relatively limited. According to 2017 research, the most common side effects of CBD use are:

  • fatigue
  • diarrhea
  • changes in weight
  • changes in appetite

Legality for athletic events

In 2018, the World Anti-Doping Agency removed CBD from its list of prohibited substances. However, most major sports leagues and athletic organizations, with the recent exception of Major League Baseball, still prohibit the use of THC.

Taking CBD shouldn’t cause you to test positive for THC, especially if you choose CBD isolate instead of full-spectrum products.

However, there have been some reports of people testing positive for THC after taking CBD, depending on the type of test used. The risk increases if you take CBD from an unreliable source, as it may be contaminated or mislabeled.

If you’re an athlete who has to be drug tested, you may want to avoid taking CBD. If you do choose to take it, read product labels and do your research to be sure you’re getting a high-quality product.

What else should I know before trying CBD?

Despite CBD’s relatively mild side effects and natural roots, you should still seek medical advice before trying it. This is especially true if you have a medical condition or are taking other medication.

CBD may interact with some medications, changing the way the body breaks down these medications. This is especially true of drugs that are processed by the liver.

If you’re new to CBD, start with a low dose and don’t use it before an athletic competition or workout. When you grow comfortable with its effects, you can start to use higher doses and consider taking it before or even during physical activity.

You can also experiment with different ways to consume and apply CBD. Besides the common tinctures and capsules, there are also CBD coffees, pre-workout drinks, and muscle balms.

Topical CBD is thought to provide the same benefits as other ingestion methods. A recent study published in an Italian medical journal indicates that CBD balms could also treat scars and psoriasis.


There are still a lot of unknowns about CBD and its impact on athletes, but initial research indicates that it’s at least worth further exploration. Athletes may find it useful for pain.

If you want to try CBD, talk to your doctor before doing so, especially if you’re taking any medications. Start with a low dose and see how your body responds before taking more.

Is CBD Legal? Hemp-derived CBD products (with less than 0.3 percent THC) are legal on the federal level, but are still illegal under some state laws. Marijuana-derived CBD products are illegal on the federal level, but are legal under some state laws. Check your state’s laws and those of anywhere you travel. Keep in mind that nonprescription CBD products are not FDA-approved, and may be inaccurately labeled.

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