There’s a revolution going on in the world of professional sports. This revolution is not televised or advertised, and you won’t read about it in your Sunday paper, but it’s happening right now. All around the world, professional athletes are turning to cannabis and cannabis-based products to improve their performance. Now, you might be wondering why this would be revolutionary.
Well, the international agency that is regulating doping — the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) — prohibits the use of all natural and synthetic cannabinoids except cannabidiol (CBD) in competitions. This means that athletes who incorporate cannabis in their training regimen risk being banned from world-class competitions.
That being said, many superstar athletes admit to smoking cannabis outside of competitions. So, you might be wondering what the role of cannabis is in professional sports. Let’s dive right in.
Why professional athletes use cannabis
Professional athletes are always trying to improve their performance. In their quest to achieve the fastest time, the longest leap or the swiftest recovery, athletes integrate different nutrients and enhancers into their daily regimen. Whether it’s trying a new pain relief cream or eating novelty foods, athletes are always trying out new things.
And, as the stigma around cannabis started to ease and governments around the world accepted it as a medical device, many athletes decided to test the health benefits of cannabis on their own. Here’s why.
Cannabis is a natural alternative for pain relief
Everyone who played sports understands that aches and pains are inevitable. Athletes often suffer from overstressed joints and pulled muscles. Sometimes because they sustain repeated blows during training.
Pain is so common in sports that trainers advise athletes to ‘push through the pain’ or to ‘make pain their friend’. Even so, in the search for their peak performance, athletes are always susceptible to pain and injuries. As a result, athletes take painkillers or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) on a regular basis.
A study that focused on NSAID use at the FIFA World Cups between 2002 and 2014 showed that up to one-third of the football players attending the World Cup used NSAIDs before every game, whether they took the field or not. And, to make matters worse, this study did not take into account the treatment already prescribed by the players’ physicians, so it’s likely that more than a third of the players took analgesic pills before a match.
But even NSAIDs, which are considered far safer than opioid painkillers, produce a wide variety of unwanted effects when athletes take them for a long time. According to a 2018 study, these side effects include gastrointestinal ulcers, hypertension, congestive heart failure, stroke and chronic kidney disease, just to name a few. So, cannabis seemed like a safe option for athletes who wanted to find and use a natural painkiller.
Cannabis is renowned for its analgesic effects. According to a 2019 study, cannabis can produce significant analgesic responses. But, here’s the thing; cannabis is also renowned for impairing motor coordination, which would be detrimental to every professional athlete. So most athletes compromise and supplement their diet with cannabidiol instead of consuming cannabis.
Cannabidiol is a major cannabinoid found in the Cannabis sativa plant. This cannabinoid is not psychoactive, so it does not produce a high. People all around the globe use CBD to lower their anxiety, improve their sleep and treat pain.
According to a 2018 study, there’s overwhelming evidence showing that CBD can help reduce neuropathic and inflammatory pain.
What’s more, CBD is well tolerated by most people and has few side effects. A 2019 study showed that only a few people reported side effects after using CBD, most of them complaining about experiencing a mild sedation that disappeared after a few weeks of use.
Cannabis lowers anxiety
Professional athletes compete in high-stress situations. All the years of hard training, strict dieting and physical pain, as well as an athlete’s complete dedication to their craft, can sometimes be rendered useless by a competitor who is a split second faster than them. This is a lot of pressure to put up with on a daily basis.
As a result, many athletes follow complex rituals to deal with their anxiety before entering a competition. Some of them blast music out of their headphones or perform certain movements in an exact pattern, while others have bizarre superstitions, such as counting the headlights on their way to the stadium, wearing the same underwear and so on.
Cannabis can help athletes overcome their anxiety. Anyone who has used cannabis will agree that it can lower your anxiety. In addition, several studies confirm this fact. However, not everyone reacts in the same way after consuming cannabis.
One study shows that low doses of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) decrease anxiety, while higher doses increase it. Moreover, cannabis consumption can sometimes lead to feelings of paranoia, which could affect every athlete’s performance. So, it seems that consuming the cannabis plant to lower anxiety could be tricky.
However, cannabidiol seemingly does a great job at decreasing anxiety without producing noticeable side effects. A study published in 2015 shows that CBD has the potential to treat multiple anxiety disorders. In addition, a 2019 study shows that CBD could calm the central nervous system. And, according to a 2017 study, CBD lowered anxiety with all studied doses.
Many of the world-class athletes benefit from the same training, so their minds might play a greater role in winning a medal than their physical condition. In a world where a second might mean the difference between the first and the third place, being calm and in control of your emotions might give you the edge to outclass your competition.
Cannabis improves sleep
Sleep plays a crucial role in the life of professional athletes. Restorative sleep is considered one of the most important aids for an athlete’s successful recovery and improved performance.
Legendary tennis player Roger Federer reportedly sleeps an average of 12 hours per night. And he’s not the only world-class athlete to sleep a lot. According to a Forbes article, Venus Williams, Usain Bolt, LeBron James and Maria Sharapova all sleep for at least 10 hours per day.
Sleep is very important for competitive athletes. But according to a 2017 study that examined 107 professional ice hockey players, one in four athletes has trouble sleeping. Sure, athletes could rely on sleeping pills to sleep more, but 80 percent of those who use sleeping pills complain about experiencing residual effects after taking them. Most people who take sleeping pills report that taking the pills interferes with their work, which makes it easy to understand why athletes would avoid taking them.
On the other hand, cannabis could help athletes sleep better. A 2018 study showed that cannabis flower produced significant improvements in perceived insomnia. In addition, a 2019 study focusing on people who suffered from insomnia showed that CBD helped 66.7 percent of them sleep better.
Cannabis and CBD could help athletes sleep more and improve their performances. Sleep is also important for muscle recovery, consequently, sleeping more could help athletes suffer fewer injuries.
Cannabis use as doping
You might be wondering why WADA considers cannabis use as doping if cannabis has the potential to help so many athletes. Well, according to WADA’s anti-doping code, a drug has to meet at least two out of the following three criteria to be considered a doping substance: is (not) a potential health risk, does (not) have the potential to enhance performance and does (not) respect the spirit of the sport.
According to WADA, cannabis can alter an athlete’s perception of risk, which could lead to poor decision making. In addition, cannabis influences muscle coordination and time estimation, which makes it a potential health risk, thus, not meeting the first criterion.
Most scientists consider cannabis to have a detrimental effect on athletic performance because it affects the athletes’ coordination and distorts their awareness of time. As a result, cannabis is not considered a performance-enhancing drug so it meets the second criterion.
The third criterion — the spirit of the sport — is the most difficult to define. Unlike the first two criteria, this one cannot be defined by scientific facts. Therefore, WADA’s code does not have a strict definition for this criterion but provides a collection of values that athletes should share.
Cannabis is an illegal substance in most of the world’s countries, with penalties for cannabis use ranging from no action to severe long-term incarcerations. WADA considers athletes to be role models for the younger generations, so the anti-doping officials believe athletes should compete without using illegal drugs.
As a result, cannabis fails to pass WADA’s spirit of the sport test and cannabis use is considered doping in competition. Cannabis use outside competitions is accepted, although athletes showing levels greater than 15 ng/mL THCCOOH (a by-product of THC) in their urine will be disqualified.
Athletes who use cannabis
According to Martellus Bennett, a former NFL player, 89 percent of all NFL players smoke cannabis. Bennett said that the NFL season takes a toll on the players’ bodies and that the players prefer smoking cannabis over taking pills that hurt their livers or kidneys.
Michael Phelps was involved in a scandal back in 2009 when he was caught on video smoking marijuana. Recent studies show that cannabis can improve lung capacity, so maybe Phelps’ cannabis-smoking habit helped him earn his world record of 28 gold medals.
Related: Can Marijuana Users Be Successful?
Nate and Nick Diaz are two MMA fighters known to vape immediately after their fights, sometimes even in front of the cameras during their press conferences. Both brothers have faced fines for their cannabis use and risked suspension. In the meantime, the brothers continue to fight the stigma surrounding cannabis and have launched their own plant-based nutrition company.
Amy Van Dyken is an Olympic gold medalist who advocates for CBD. In a 2018 interview, the 6-time Olympic gold medalist said she can’t and won’t live without CBD.
Conor McGregor is the most famous fighter in the UFC, and he uploaded several photos of himself smoking cannabis on his Instagram page. Conor was also spotted enjoying himself in a cannabis café in Amsterdam.
The future of cannabis in professional sports
Even though many European countries are preparing for the cannabis boom, the chances of cannabis getting off of WADA’s doping substances list are extremely slim. As long as multiple countries around the world will punish cannabis use with long-term incarceration, WADA will continue to prohibit it.
It seems like CBD will be the only viable cannabis alternative available to athletes for the foreseeable future.