Cannabis in Sport: Does it Enhance Performance?

Cannabis has shown to offer several benefits as a medicine, including relief from stress, pain, insomnia, and nausea. It may also help with inflammation, including what occurs in the brain after a traumatic brain injury. The interesting thing about these conditions is that they all happen to athletes, whether they are competitive, retired, or maybe just weekend warriors. The illegal status of the plant Cannabis sativa and its constituents may have hampered any meaningful drug development. Still, athletes all over the world want to know more about the potential for cannabis as a sports medicine.

Is cannabis a performance enhancer?

According to the University of Toronto affiliated systematic review published in Sports Health, there is no direct evidence of cannabis having performance-enhancing effects in athletes. The World Health Organization’s ruling in favour of allowing CBD in 2018 would indicate they share the same view.

In that same study there was data to support overall improvement of fatigue, pain management, nerve pain related to the spinal cord and tight muscles, and leg fatigue when consuming cannabis. A potential correlation between THC use and survival after a traumatic brain injury also exists. The review aimed to spot the “current regulations around cannabis and sport, the epidemiology of cannabis use in athletes, and its effect on sports performance and recovery.” This review covered 37 studies that involved individuals between the ages of 13–48 from high school athletes to high level athletes. No study found a direct correlation between cannabis consumption and improved athletic performance. There is evidence to prove that cannabis does provide relief from sports-related injuries, pain, or stress. Overall, the authors of the review concluded that, “Although cannabis use is more prevalent in some athletes engaged in high-risk sports, there is no direct evidence of performance-enhancing effects in athletes.”

Career ending nerve pain

Epidemiologist Joanna Zeiger of Colorado was opposed to cannabis use. Her aversion sprouted not only from her research at the University of Colorado on drug use disorders in youth, but also from the drug testing required to compete in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and multiple Ironman World Championships. Then a career-ending bike crash left Ziegler with constant muscle spasms, nausea, and insomnia. The dream of defending her title at the 2009 Ironman 70.3 World Championships crashed with her. Zeiger’s husband influenced her to try cannabis for some relief. This was the turning point of Zeiger’s opinion on cannabis use as she then founded the Canna Research Group. Now she uses this research group to explore the role of cannabis in athletes. For example, the group distributed a survey to 1,274 adult athletes, asking about their cannabis use. The Athlete Pain, Exercise, and Cannabis Experience (PEACE) Survey found that about 61 percent of respondents use cannabis for pain, with 68 percent saying that cannabis improves their pain. The survey also found that young athletes are the most likely to use cannabis and report they experience better sleep and less anxiety when using cannabis than the older respondents. If someone like Joanna Zeiger who had such an adverse opinion of cannabis could make such a big turnaround, maybe you could too.

Tapping into the power of cannabis

Cannabis regulation in sports can have complicated variabilities and most professional leagues have restrictions on the use of cannabis. Most regulations focus on THC (the psychoactive constituent of cannabis) rather than CBD. Cannabidiol (CBD) is a non-psychoactive constituent of cannabis that does not produce the same effects of THC. CBD oil derived from hemp is considered a food supplement in several countries and is more accessible than THC-rich cannabis. Since 2004 cannabinoids have been banned in all sports by the World Anti-Doping Agency, but the agency has recently changed its list of prohibited substances to make an exception for CBD. In order for CBD to be accepted, it must contain very little THC. Many studies have confirmed the therapeutic efficacy of CBD, especially concerning symptoms such as pain, insomnia, anxiety, and depression.