What Exactly Is CBD and Can It Improve Your Performance and Recovery?

What Exactly Is CBD and Can It Improve Your Performance and Recovery?
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Photo credit: Matthew Roharik - Getty Images
Photo credit: Matthew Roharik - Getty Images

A natural alternative to ibuprofen. An antidote to anxiety. A sleep aid. A post-workout recovery booster.

Those are some of the claims about cannabidiol (CBD) oil. You may have heard about this cannabis extract, which is said to provide widespread health benefits without the drawbacks of marijuana. And because of new federal legislation, you’ll probably be hearing a lot more about CBD over the next few years.

Already, a growing number of athletes, including many in the trail running and ultramarathon community, consider CBD a key part of their regimen. And because of these early adopters, my interest piqued on CBD and its proposed benefits. Could CBD help my running? Can it help yours? I decided to find out.

But before we explore how runners and other athletes use CBD, here’s what you need to know.

What is CBD?

CBD is shorthand for cannabidiol, one of the more than 100 cannabinoids found in cannabis. CBD products are said to deliver their many claimed benefits by boosting the body’s endocannabinoid system, which is a system that “is a unique signaling pathway that controls the function of a variety of systems throughout the body, including the cardiovascular system,” says Nicholas DiPatrizio, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical sciences at the University of California, Riverside School of Medicine. (More on the endocannabinoid system later.)

Endocannabinoids are familiar to runners because of their theorized role in running-induced mood boosts. That euphoric phenomenon is thought to be from activation of the same receptors in the brain that the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in marijuana acts upon. CBD “works through distinct-albeit not definitively identified-signaling systems than THC,” DiPatrizio says. CBD is non-psychoactive, which means it doesn’t produce a high.

Here are some other common questions to think about:

Almost all commercially available CBD products are made from industrial hemp, a cannabis plant that, by definition, contains not more than 0.3 percent THC. In December, President Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalizes industrial hemp. It had previously been federally classified as a Schedule 1 drug; its production and distribution was prohibited. The upshot: The federal Drug Enforcement Administration can’t interfere with the interstate commerce of industrial hemp. CBD products made from hemp are as legal as most other commercial nutritional supplements.

In terms of athletics, hemp-derived CBD was removed from the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances earlier this year. Hemp legalization and more companies targeting athletes should further separate CBD from its cultural association with marijuana.

CBD products come in a variety of forms, including tinctures, gel caps, and topical applications. One athlete-focused company, Floyd’s of Leadville, offers a protein recovery powder and a carb drink that contain CBD. (That’s Floyd as in Floyd Landis, the former professional cyclist who was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title for failing a drug test and who helped to expose Lance Armstrong’s doping.) Another athlete-focused company, PurePower Botanicals, offers capsules that combine CBD with herbs and other purported medicinals, such as turmeric. PurePower says that the non-hemp-derived ingredients increase the effectiveness of the products’ CBD.

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