Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Scott Gold loves the grind and exhilaration of long technical trail runs as much as anyone. The challenge of running over rocks, roots and ridges provides an ideal blend of physical and mental stimulation as well as peacefulness.
The 31-year-old software-service manager from Boulder, Colorado, has logged his share of early morning jaunts before work, long mountain runs on the weekends and trail races from 26 miles to 100K in recent years. But he also knows what it feels like a day or so after those kinds of runs. Aside from minor aches and soreness, he also often feels tired and generally fatigued and that can lead to stress and anxiety.
A few years ago, he discovered cannabidiol, or CBD oil—a non-intoxicating plant-based substance derived from cannabis plants—and now he ingests it on a daily basis. Yes, those are similar plants from which intoxicating marijuana is derived, but don’t jump to conclusions that Gold is some kind recreational doper. It’s not about getting high.
Breaking Down CBD
While marijuana and THC-derived supplements produce a wide range of psychoactive effects, CBD does not. For a growing number of trail runners, CBD is a natural alternative to ibuprofen, naproxen and a range of opioid painkillers, while for others it’s a sleep aid or recovery supplement. For Gold, it’s mostly about recovery and reduced anxiety.
For a growing number of trail runners, CBD is a natural alternative to ibuprofen, naproxen and a range of opioid painkillers, while for others it’s a sleep aid or recovery supplement.
Gold, who ingests CBD supplements most evenings, says, “It’s hard to tell how it really works, but for me the bottom line is that I feel more refreshed the next day, and I feel pretty rotten if I don’t take it.”
That’s a common reaction among growing number of professional and recreational trail runners who use CBD supplements. The increased prevalence and acceptance of CBD for medicinal uses can be partially attributed to the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized industrial hemp and declassified it as a Schedule 1 drug.
Although THC is fully legal as a recreational drug in only 11 states and Washington D.C. as of spring 2020, CBD is legal (in some form or another) in all 50 states. CBD enhanced with THC is only legal in pot-legal states.
It’s important to note that CBD products sold in the U.S. fall into one of two categories. CBD isolate contains only CBD without any other cannabinoids; full-spectrum CBD oil retains THC and other cannabinoids. In either form, it can be consumed in several different ways, including chewable gummy tablets, ingestible capsules and food products, powdered recovery drinks, tinctures, topical creams and balms or via vaporizing. Dosage might range from 10mg to 25mg, depending on the individual and symptoms.
Overcoming the Stigma
As medicinal CBD has separated from the hazy social stigma of recreational pot, it has gone from a largely misunderstood substance originally tied to the legalized marijuana trade to somewhat of a modern wonder drug and a natural panacea for soreness, pain, anxiety, depression and inconsistent sleep—even though there is little research to support any CBD health claims, given that it’s only become fully legal within the past year.
Pro trail runner Hillary Allen started using CBD to treat pain and inflammation after suffering major injuries during a fall in a technical trail race in Tromsø, Norway, two years ago. After tripping and falling near the halfway mark of the 50K race, she tumbled more than 150 feet over rocks and scree, suffering two broken ribs, a couple of fractures in her back, a ruptured ligament in her foot and two broken wrists, not to mention numerous lacerations, scrapes and deep bruises. In the weeks and months that followed, she was in constant pain.
Allen, who has a master’s degree in neuroscience, was already aware of the positive effects CBD can have on overactive nerves, but she was drawn to topical ointments and creams to treat localized pain and inflammation during her recovery. Because it’s legal in Colorado, she also uses CBD that contains trace amounts of THC as a sleep aid.
“When I was recovering, I used CBD as often as I needed it—which was every day and sometimes multiple times a day,” says Allen. “I’d always rub it on my foot to sooth it for sleeping and then I started taking an oral supplement more for a sleep aid when I was having trouble sleeping. With a broken back, I took all the help I could get.”
Is It Competition-Legal?
Although THC is legal in 11 states, it remains on the WADA/USADA banned substance list, meaning athletes can be suspended if it comes up in a drug test. However, CBD was removed from the list in January 2019 and is no longer prohibited. Still, both continue to carry a bit of a lingering stigma.
That’s something that Joanna Zeiger, Ph.D., is trying to help eliminate. A former professional triathlete who competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials for both triathlon and the marathon, Zeiger started using CBD and combinations of CBD and THC after she retired to manage chronic pain and discovered that she wasn’t alone.
Joanna Zeiger, Ph.D. founded the Canna Research Group in Boulder, Colorado, last year and conducted the Athlete PEACE Survey to understand CBD and THC use among adult athletes. The biggest takeaway was that 61 percent of athletes polled were using some sort of CBD—either with or without THC—to successfully manage pain.
She founded the Canna Research Group in Boulder, Colorado, last year and conducted the Athlete PEACE Survey to understand CBD and THC use among adult athletes. The biggest takeaway was that 61 percent of athletes polled were using some sort of CBD—either with or without THC—to successfully manage pain. There were also some adverse effects reported—including difficulty concentrating and increased appetite—but the good far outweighed the bad, Zeiger says.
“A lot of athletes are turning to it for pain management, improved sleep and decreased anxiety,” she says. “With CBD being legalized, it’s become a dip-your-toe-in-the-water experiment for people who are still feeling the stigma of THC but are canna-curious.”
It’s Still the Wild, Wild West
The biggest challenge is that the CBD industry is still in the wild, wild west of its evolution, partially because the absence of federal regulation. In late May 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration held a public hearing to allow stakeholders in the CBD world to share their experiences and challenges with products containing cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds to begin a regulatory strategy.
While there are many reputable brands such as iKOR Labs, Charlotte’s Web, Floyd’s of Leadville, cbdMD, NuLeaf Naturals, Spruce, CBDistillery and Myaderm, among others, that are willing to share all of their manufacturing information, there are plenty of shady brands too. So buyer beware, Zeiger says.
Some CBD products can contain contaminants because cannabis plants can absorb heavy metals, pesticides and other harmful chemicals found in the soil or water. Until the FDA comes out with regulations, CBD and the companies that sell it are largely unchecked when it comes to manufacturing, labeling, claims and dosage.
Treat the Root Cause First
Dr. Lara Johnson, a Boulder-based physical therapist, is aware of the positive effect CBD products can have for an athlete, but she recommends treating the root cause of the pain or soreness first and foremost. CBD might be helpful, but it also might be similar to using kinesiology tape, custom insoles or even engaging in an improper training or strengthening program, she says, in that it’s not really going to heal the problem or fix it.
“People might think it’s a wonder drug, but I tend to think most drugs aren’t wonderful, in general, because they tend to mask what’s really going on,” Johnson says. “Our bodies are very intelligent and when they tell us about pain or soreness, it’s an indication about some bigger things that might need addressing. If CBD is helping with pain management and recovery, that’s a good thing. But it’s not going to be dealing with the root cause of biomechanics or nerve function or other things that might be causing the pain or soreness.”
People might think it’s a wonder drug, but I tend to think most drugs aren’t wonderful, in general, because they tend to mask what’s really going on,” Johnson says. “Our bodies are very intelligent and when they tell us about pain or soreness, it’s an indication about some bigger things that might need addressing.
In the meantime, the product offerings from CBD brands continues to evolve with trail runners in mind. For example, iKOR Labs released its Recovery Shot in early June at the Ragnar Trail relay event in Snowmass, Colorado. The all-natural, two-ounce drink formula includes tart cherry juice, turmeric, ginger root, black pepper, plus 22 milligrams of full-spectrum hemp extract and 13 milligrams of CBD per serving and a proprietary blend of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant extracts.
“Yeah, it’s still the wild west and a buyer’s beware market because there are clearly a lot of brands trying to make a quick buck out there,” says Jon Robichaud, vice president of marketing for iKOR Labs. “For us, it’s really about education and the people behind the product, as much as the product itself. Our intent is to become a thought leader so we can rise above the part of the industry that is just white-labeling products and selling them vs. putting thought behind what an individual really needs and how it can affect them on a daily basis.”
As for Gold, he says he keeps up on research and news about CBD and continues to adjust what’s best for him, lately preferring Stillwater Brands’ Ripple drink mix with a 20/1 CBD/THC ratio and Extract Lab gummies with a 10/1 ratio.
“You kind of have to experiment a bit to figure out what works for you,” he says. “If you get the right combo, you can really feel your body relax and that’s when the pain management begins.”
Tips on Using CBD
OK, so you’re interested in trying cannabidiol, or CBD oil, to manage pain, inflammation, sleep or general recovery. But how do you get started?
As with any industry, not all products are created equally. There are high-quality products and low-quality products and just about everything in between, says Aaron Cadena, editor of CBD Origin.com, an online education, news and resource site about cannabidiol. Until the FDA begins regulating CBD, the most important keys are awareness and education.
Cadena says the critical factor in your purchasing process is making sure you’re buying CBD products from a company that insists on third-party testing from a reputable lab that provides a valid Certificate of Analysis report. That will allow you to make sure the cannabinoid content listing on the product’s label is consistent with what is listed in the product’s lab report, that the product is free from harmful contaminants and contains less than 0.3 percent THC—both for legal reasons and to avoid unwanted side effects.
Knowing where was the hemp sourced, how was it cultivated and what kind of CBD you’re buying is also important, as is understanding the dosages in each product, whether it’s a gel capsule, gummy, drink mix or tincture.
When in doubt, ask more questions and do some digging for answers. Does the company have a good reputation? What other ingredients are included in the product? Are the ingredients natural and organic? Is it fairly priced?
“The only consensus is the idea of ‘starting slow and going slow,’ meaning you should start with very low dosages and increase it slowly over time as you figure out what the effects are,” says Joanna Zeiger, Ph.D, who also suggests doing plenty research about a brand before buying any CBD products and keeping a journal to keep track of your usage.