Can cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabis help athletes? Yes, as numerous studies seem to suggest, also evidenced by thousands of athletic users worldwide. CBD’s therapeutic role in inflammation—and cannabinoid action to alleviate even very serious pain conditions—are not fresh news. Read on for more about the research on that. What is fresh, though, is a recent research article written by teams from the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) and published in Frontiers in Public Health (April 2019). In the article, titled The New Runner's High? Examining Relationships Between Cannabis Use and Exercise Behavior in States With Legalized Cannabis, the authors reveal some interesting discoveries. 
Can Cannabis Help Athletes?
Taking weed in any form is commonly associated with red eyes, lethargy, and passivity. Think “pothead” and “couch potato.” Yet using an online survey to gather data, the research team from Colorado’s findings regarding cannabis use and exercise behavior refutes these assumptions.
Speaking to Science Daily, senior author Angela Bryan said that the data suggests the opposite of the stereotype. She and her colleagues collected information from 600 adult marijuana users in the states of California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. Bryan is a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and the Institute for Cognitive Science.
One of the questions pertaining to use asked whether the participants took cannabis within one hour before or four hours after exercise.
Eighty-two percent of participants replied with a “Yes,” stunning the researchers. These respondents tended to be mostly male and younger.
Three hundred forty-five so-called "co-users" (people who use cannabis with exercise) said they were more likely to use it after exercise than before. Sixty-seven percent said they used both times. Most participants listed advantages such as higher motivation to exercise (these effects have a basis in neurobiological mechanisms connected to the endocannabinoid system, according to research), faster recovery periods, and greater enjoyment of the activity. 
These findings are significant, as the article points to other research looking at what stops people from exercising regularly:
“Common barriers that prevent individuals from the initiation or continuation of a regular exercise regimen include improper recovery after exercise, lack of motivation, and low enjoyment of exercise.”
Why Does It Work?
Also talking to Science Daily, co-author Arielle Gillman said: "There is evidence to suggest that certain cannabinoids dampen pain perception, and we also know that the receptors cannabis binds to in the brain are very similar to the receptors that are activated naturally during the runners’ high. Theoretically, you could imagine that if it could dampen pain and induce an artificial 'runner's high,' it could keep people motivated."
Gillman is a former Ph.D. student in Bryan's lab, and she published a review paper on the subject in 2015.
Using CBD, exercise could also be easier for athletes because of the cannabinoid’s aforementioned ability to attenuate the body’s inflammatory responses. CBD has been shown to improve inflammation in conditions such as colitis, arthritis, neuroinﬂammation, chemotaxis, reperfusion injury, etc. However, this research was mostly done in animal models. As the authors of a review concluded:
“These and others need to be pursued in human trials with a view toward clinical applications where CBD’s absence of psychotropic effects and other adverse events offers a major advantage over other cannabinoids.” The authors are referring to the mentioned CBD health benefits that are conferred without any high or mind-altering side effects. This makes it a very promising addition to an athlete’s health regimen. 
Cannabis and CBD Exercise—Is It Safe?
To return to the athletic performance and cannabis study—Bryan doesn’t recommend marijuana use in any way. "The evidence is not there yet," she said. Her view could be supported by the low number of participants who reported enhanced performance—only 38 percent. Also, co-users exercised on average over 40 minutes longer per week, so less could be more.
"There are a lot of interesting data points and hypotheses out there but not a lot of them have been tested."
Bryan is referring to long-distance runners testifying to marijuana’s ability to curb nausea and boredom on long runs.
Furthermore, the study has flaws, such as its cross-sectional, anonymous, and self-reporting nature, as well as recruitment issues, particularly that of cannabis users without a non-using comparison group, reports the article.
Also, the survey didn’t ask questions about the formulation of cannabis that users prefer. These would include oils, tinctures, edibles, infusions, etc. The study furthermore only considered frequent users in states that have already legalized weed. What this means is that these factors could alter research outcomes, if addressed.
However, Bryan does note in her interview with Science Daily that she’s not convinced cannabis for athletes is harmful, either. A lot more research in human subjects still needs to be done to explore. In fact, more research is already underway at CU Boulder, which compares the activity levels of older adult cannabis users versus those who do not use.
"As we get older, exercise starts to hurt, and that is one reason older adults don't exercise as much," Bryan says. "If cannabis could ease pain and inflammation, helping older adults to be more active that could be another benefit.”
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD health benefits seem to include pain management, as demonstrated by many studies in mostly animal models. One review of the literature concluded:
“The phytocannabinoids have efficacy in the treatment of various chronic pain conditions with greatest promise as a therapeutic adjunct in treating peripheral and central neuropathic pain and inflammation-mediated chronic pain. However, the smoked route of administration and the psychoactivity of THC—with associated concerns about abuse and long-term cognitive adverse effects—continue to pose serious and significant barriers to obtaining benefit from Cannabis among most patients and acceptability among health care professionals and regulatory agencies.” 
These findings could be significant for athletes, especially for attenuation of inflammation-mediated pain. Taking cannabis could also explain the faster recovery periods. First, consult with a physician or other qualified medical professional before replacing any prescribed medicine with cannabis or CBD. Exercise may become more enjoyable using these, but as pointed out, a lot more research is called for.