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How Does Cannabis & CBD Affect Sports Performance?

From the everyday gym-goer to the professional athlete, sports performance is one of the keys to physical & mental fitness. Whether you’re going for gold or merely looking to PR your max deadlift, the way in which we train and nurture our bodies will impact those results. But how does cannabis & CBD affect sports performance?

Keep reading to find out how cannabis and CBD can aid in your sports performance. And stay tuned for a follow-up post on cannabis and CBD for sports recovery. 

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Information presented in this post is intended as a personal and professional representation of my views on food, nutrition, sports nutrition, and the use of cannabis. Be sure to check out our disclosures.

The contents of The Pineapple Expressionist is intended for informational and educational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Reliance on any information provided by this site is solely at your own risk. Consult a physician before starting any exercise regimen.

What is Sports Performance Training?

Whether you’re a recreational, collegiate, or elite-level athlete, by definition, sports performance is measured by an athlete’s “technical, tactical, physiological, psychological, social characteristics” specifically when it comes to intensified training. (5)

This can be measured in various ways, such as personal bests (PBs) or personal records (PR), and are heavily influenced by training periodization, pre- and post-workout nutrition & lifestyle. 

Athletes and coaches should be able to determine whether the type of training is effective on the athlete’s performance.

Image with text athletes and coaches should work together to determine effective training periodization with a female athlete training with a coach

Has the athlete’s time to finish decreased or increased? Do they recover more quickly after a workout? Are they able to perform the same amount of work with decreased or increased exertion? 

Small improvements & enhancements can be seen over time, or just the opposite if the proper training and recovery protocols aren’t implemented or if periodization never occurs.

The definition of insanity is repeating the same measure over & over again and expecting a different outcome!

How Does Cannabis & CBD Affect Sports Performance?

When referring to cannabis, this includes flower/products with most or all cannabinoids (i.e. THC). When referring to CBD, this includes either hemp-derived flower/products or CBD-isolated products with <0.3% THC.

In the world of sports & recreational exercise, cannabis & CBD are not only showing great promise for mental focus during competition & as a recovery agent, but testing organizations are starting to reconsider these parameters as well. 

And some have already removed CBD from their list of banned substances!

The ECS plays a key role in pain sensation, neurotransmission, inflammation & pain management. In addition, the activity of G-coupled proteins CB1 and CB2 receptors in conjunction with lipid ligands act as a modulator for pain perception.

While more research is warranted and ongoing, the analgesic properties of cannabis & cannabidiol (CBD) seem to show promising potential for enhanced focus, attention & mental clarity while performing your chosen sport & reducing the risk for injury.

Image of male athlete sprint training up stairs with text every athlete has an ECS that plays a key role in pain sensation, neurotransmission, inflammation and pain management

In addition, the relaxing effects of cannabis & CBD may prove to enhance mental health & wellness among athletes as a means to reduce the pressure placed upon them during training & competition.

There’s still a lot of debate as to whether cannabis is a “performance enhancer” because if you ask any seasoned stoner, most of us get slower (not faster) at anything we do while indulging in a little “plant-based” self-care (cue the groans over Sha’Carri Richardson’s 2021 Tokyo Olympics ban).

>>> FREE Cannabis & CBD Symptom Tracker <<<

What Does WADA Say About Weed?

Take note that each testing organization sets its own standards for which substances are allowed or banned before or during competition.

As of 2018, CBD (not THC) has officially been removed from the World Ant-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list of banned substances, allowing Olympic athletes to partake in the use of CBD-isolated & broad spectrum products derived from hemp. (1)

Full spectrum products should be avoided by athletes subjected to drug testing as they may contain THC, even at very low levels, and can still show up positive on a drug screen. (1)

The NCAA is still a bit up in the air for the time being. While CBD is not listed on their list of banned substances, the rules clearly state: “Any substance that is chemically related to one of the above classes, even if it is not listed as an example, is also banned”. (2)

This means that since CBD is a chemical relative of THC, it is seemingly considered a banned substance. Gotta love those mixed messages. So it is, but it isn’t?? (2)

There’s a Change in the Air

However, the professional athletes are fighting back! The NHL doesn’t have CBD listed as a banned substance, the MLB is lenient with its athletes’ use of CBD, and the NFL & NBA are looking into less archaic rulings as well. (2)

Image of four football players in generic navy uniform with text the pros are fighting back for cannabis in sports

Now, if you’re a recreational athlete who is not required to be drug tested for work, your use of THC while working out is completely up to you. Use extra caution when consuming THC while lifting weights.

While CBD creates greater mental clarity and focus, the impairing effects of THC could prove to be detrimental to your performance if you’re not used to using it. 

Use your BEST judgment, be smart, don’t dose too high, and keep some extra CBD around in case you’re workout starts to become less than desirable.

CBD for Sports Performance

As mentioned above, CBD was removed (thankfully) from WADA’s Prohibited List of substances due to piling evidence that this cannabinoid is safe & well-tolerated for human use, even at high doses without illicit performance-enhancing effects. (3)

With this newfound freedom, athletes can now choose to use CBD during competition to help ease nerves, assist in focus and create a calming mental environment, one of the most important (if not the most important) external factors affecting an athlete’s performance and confidence.

Disclaimer: always be sure to check with each individual testing organization for its own list of banned/prohibited substances

Not all CBD is Created Equal 

You can’t turn a corner in any type of store anymore without your eye locking onto some product boasting about CBD, which means that the market is becoming saturated with those trying to stay relevant in a game that they’re not necessarily experts in. Use caution!

Always be sure to vet the supplier and manufacturer before consumption. There is a high risk of cross-contamination and higher/lower potencies than listed, especially if you’re in a state in which cannabis (i.e. THC) is still illegal.

Don’t be misled by labels that say that the products contain <0.3% THC, and ensure proper lab testing was done on all products OR that the product was hemp-derived and NOT derived from the cannabis plant itself.

These are CBD suppliers that I trust:

THC for Sports Performance

Now when it comes to THC for “enhancements” in sports performance, anecdotally and scientifically, I’ll tell you that that couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, it will slow you down and cause delays in judgment and reaction time.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is not a steroid or a hormone. It simply does not have that same performance-enhancing ability as other ergogenic aids, but it’s still currently prohibited from use during competition.

In the past, athletes have been sanctioned due to the amount of THC remaining in their blood around the time of competition (i.e recreational use) which has proven to remain a controversial  & grey area (just like per se driving violations).

However, in 2011, WADA raised the threshold from 15 ng/mL to 150 ng/mL to allow for greater flexibility in recreational use for the purpose of mental and physical recovery outside of competition. (4)

Image of muscular female strength athlete lunging with medicine ball in hand with text THC is not a steroid or a hormone, but is still currently prohibited from use during competition

There is a way for athletes to apply for exemptions through the Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) for the use of prohibited substances.

By definition, TUE will be granted “if the athlete would experience a significant impairment to health if the substance was withheld; the use would not enhance performance beyond a return to normal health and there is no reasonable nonprohibited alternative”. (4)

This is not a one size fits all definition, and each case is looked at individually.

THC Consideration for Paralympic Athletes

The paralympic athlete is a special population to consider as these athletes often experience pain not only from the exertion of competition but possibly from injury or their specific condition itself.

Several paralympic athletes may have postamputation (or even phantom) pain and/or neuropathic pain from a spinal cord injury or impairment. (4)

By this theory, there is potential for THC to help with spasticity and it may be useful in brain injury management that causes spasms, pain, and inflammation. (4)

Luckily, these athletes prescribed medical cannabis can easily apply for TUE. To date, very few (if any) clinical trials have been conducted to confirm that the use of THC is safe and effective for paralympic athletes.

Optimal Nutrition for Sports Performance

Timing of nutrients is one of the key factors in optimizing sports performance. There is no magic pill, and as much as I love cannabis, I’m a sports dietitian first. Proper performance nutrition still is, and always will be, the #1 priority.

Of course, the type of sport or activity you’re engaging in will determine nutrient needs and timing.

Power/strength athletes engaging in short yet explosive bursts of energy (i.e. sprinters, powerlifters & hockey players) have different needs than endurance athletes training for marathons, triathlons & ultradistance events.

Image of a muscular male sprinter on track side by side a female distance runner on ocean coastal road with text both are athletes but with different needs

For example, endurance athletes engaging in 90+ minutes of activity need to ensure proper nutrition before, during & after training or competition focusing more so on carbohydrates.

Whereas the 1-2 hour-long gym session won’t necessarily require nutrition during that session (think about how many more breaks you take even just walking to the next machine) with a greater focus on protein post-workout.

But please don’t confuse the importance of all the macronutrients for all types of athletes, such as fat for not only satiety but cognition and mental focus for all athletes. The ratios simply change based on the length, duration & intensity of said sport or activity.

Don’t Neglect the Micros

And equally as important are the micronutrients (i.e. electrolytes/vitamins/minerals). These little guys tend to get forgotten about since they’re required in much smaller quantities compared to the macros. But without them, the macros couldn’t properly function as they should.

They’re recognized most often in supplement form or in sports beverages, but foods and beverages also contain a plethora of micronutrients, such as the high-quality heme-iron content in red meat or the non-heme iron content of quinoa.

Plus many fruits and vegetables can serve as nondairy sources of calcium & iron for those sensitive and are some of the best sources of vitamin C.

Every Athlete is Different

Every athlete is different and has different gastrointestinal (GI) tolerance to food in their systems prior to physical activity.

I, for example, am much more comfortable during a workout with more liquid-based nutrition prior to training (i.e. 1 scoop mass gainer protein powder mixed with water and fruit). This provides me with protein to prepare for recovery & carbs to fuel me during my workout.

However, other athletes might prefer a full-on meal prior to training, which is great if you can tolerate that. Choose your pre-workout nutrition according to you, your needs, and your tolerance.

Consider the Work Being Done

And it may seem counterintuitive to see some of the best foods for sports performance as many (unfairly) deem athletes’ diets as “unhealthy”.

What needs to be considered is the amount of work, energy, and scheduling of these athletes’ training demands. Therefore, oftentimes, one of the first priorities is to get these athletes enough calories. 

And sometimes that may come in the form of a PB&J on whole grain bread, 8 oz. glass of milk or chocolate milk, and a handful of Doritos.

While it’s by far one of my favorite elementary school lunches & memories (who else threw their Doritos on their PB&J – Little Rascals’ style??), I’m confident knowing that my athlete will actually consume that whole meal. 

Sports training should not be a punishment, and the same goes for sports nutrition. If an athlete won’t eat what you’ve prepared or suggested for them, it doesn’t matter how nutrient-dense that meal or snack might be if they don’t actually consume those nutrients. 

Keep These Things in Mind

Another thing to consider is the mental health and pressure of athletes, even the recreational athlete who’s looking to get a six-pack for their own, personal reasons.

With so much to consider when it comes to training, timing, scheduling, intensity, home life, etc., let’s try to make one part of our athletes’ regimen enjoyable, while still striving to get them the results they’re after.

But don’t be Michael Scott!! Always be sure to test out new foods & nutrition protocols during TRAINING phases NOT during COMPETITION

Check out how NOT to carbo-load below. 

Best Foods for Sports Performance

Below is a list of some optimal foods for sports performance that are not only nutrient-dense but palatable & enjoyable (and keep in mind that many foods often fall into more than one macronutrient category): 

Protein

  • Beans (in moderation)
  • Cheese
  • Complementary proteins, especially if you’re a vegan or vegetarian athlete
  • Dairy (nonfat Greek yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, cream cheese)
  • Eggs (all varieties – hardboiled are easiest to travel/transport on the go)
  • Fatty fish
  • Ground meats
  • Hummus
  • Lean poultry
  • Milk or milk substitutes 
    • Somewhat controversial in the sports world, milk will also be something to consider based on individual tolerance and inflammatory factors. Some athletes may experience excess inflammation when consuming dairy, outside of an allergy or intolerance, that could hinder sports performance and recovery.
    • Consider lactose-friendly varieties to ease digestion.
  • Nut butter
  • Nuts & seeds
  • Quinoa, amaranth, couscous
  • Protein powder 
    • Not only optimal for sports recovery, since protein is the slowest digesting macronutrient, you can also account for muscle breakdown & initiate muscle protein synthesis by ingesting protein prior to training. By the time that training session ends, you’ve already got some protein on reserve waiting to start repairing muscle
    • For more information, check out The Protein Power Packet + CBD & Sports Bonus.
  • Red meat

Carbohydrates

Key for glycogen storage & replenishment:

  • Bagels
  • Fruit & vegetables
    • Specifically cantaloupe, citrus fruits, berries, bell peppers, cruciferous and dark, green leafy vegetables
    • Excellent source of electrolytes without the need for sugary sports beverages.
    • For more information, check out Eat Your Electrolytes.
  • Pasta
  • Potatoes/sweet potatoes
  • Rice
  • Tortillas
  • Whole grains (not whole wheat)
    • Wheat is often refined like white bread products and died brown; whole-grain is really what you want to look for.
    • Crackers, bread, corn, pita
  • Remember to always pair carbohydrates with a protein and/or fat source to stabilize blood sugar levels & avoid a crash (i.e. white potato with a dollop of Greek yogurt and shredded cheddar cheese)

Fats

  • Avocado oil (for cooking)
  • Butter or ghee (for cooking, to add to coffee, foods, etc.)
  • Coconut or MCT oil (for cooking, to add to coffee, etc.)
  • Fatty fish
  • Ground meats
    • Depending on athletes’ goals, 97/3, 85/15, 80/20 are good options.
    • Need to put on weight? Go for 85/15 or 80/20.
    • Trying to lean out? Go for 97/3 or even 95/5 if you can find it.
  • Hummus
  • Nuts & seeds
  • Olive oil (for dressings at room temperature)
  • Red meat with marbling

Other

  • Sodium/table salt (especially for salty sweaters)
  • Salt substitutes such as Mrs. Dash (potassium chloride – KCl) for those sensitive to salt or athletes with high blood pressure
List of Best Foods for Sports Performance Infographic with suggestions for protein, carbohydrate, fat and micronutrient sources
Don’t forget to pin it for later!

Adding Weed to Your Workout

Working out with weed isn’t for everyone. 

For example, as seasoned as I am in my cannabis consumption, THC is too impairing for me during a time when I need to physically exert myself.

Therefore, I choose to either not partake in cannabis prior to a workout or opt for a few puffs of a CBD-only disposable pen and reserve my THC use for recovery only.

You choose when and how you incorporate cannabis into your workouts and recovery. Use what works for YOU, not anyone else. Not every user is as “functional” as the next, and that’s totally ok! Own it, accept it and work around it, just like I do.

However, to really “level up” your pre- and post-workout nutrition, you could consider adding broad spectrum, full spectrum or CBD oil to your foods and beverages.

By doing so, you’ll continue to incorporate synergistic terpenes & cannabinoids with the naturally occurring terpenes in the foods listed above.

Check out this article & download this freebie to learn more about which foods contain which types of terpenes.


Prefer to make your own cannabis-infused products at home? Master the first step here.

Then check out these awesome (and easy) recipes from Emily Kyle, MS, RDN, HCP.

>>> How to Make CBD Oil at Home <<<

>>> Raspberry Peach Cannabis Smoothie <<<


Don’t forget about the importance of sleep for sports performance. Without adequate sleep, we simply can’t function at our optimized potential nor properly repair and recover.

For more tips to help you get to, and stay, asleep, snag your free copy of “Bud”time for Bedtime: Insomnia Tips with the Help of Cannabis here.


Share this post with anyone looking to work weed into their workout & don’t forget to sign up for the newsletter & follow me on Instagram so you never miss an update!

Until next time, go Pineapple Express Yourself!


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