Ask Dr. Leigh: can cannabis help with sports recovery?

cannabis sports recovery

Using cannabis can have a big impact on your physical and mental health—for better and, once in a while, for worse. That’s why it’s important to consult a healthcare provider before experimenting.

Here at GreenState, cannabis clinician Dr. Leigh Vinocur is here to answer your questions on healthy living with cannabis.

RELATED: Ask Dr Leigh: can hospice patients use medical cannabis?

Editor’s Note: The answer to this question is meant to supplement, not replace, advice, diagnoses, and treatment from a healthcare provider.  Always consult a medical professional when using cannabis for medicinal purposes, and do not disregard the advice of your healthcare provider because of anything you may read in this article. 

Q) Can cannabis help with sports recovery? 

This is an active area of research right now. We know our endocannabinoid system (ECS) plays an important role in maintaining our physiologic system. It is a crucial part of protecting us during times of stress and injury. This is why both physicians and athletes alike are looking into the potential benefits that cannabis can play with respect to sports recovery. Additionally, it is the activation of our ECS during exercise that gives us the blissful, euphoric feeling, sometimes also called a “runner’s high.” 

Training and participating in sports can take a toll on our bodies. Without adequate rest and recovery, overtraining can lead to a host of medical problems that affect various body systems, including the endocrine, nervous, and immunological systems. Overdoing it or overusing specific muscle groups can lead to microtraumas and injuries of those muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments.  

According to the National Athletic Trainers Association, one-quarter of collegiate athletic injuries are from overuse.  These continuous small, repetitive injuries are not easily identified until they eventually negatively impact and reduce athletic performance as well as create chronic health problems, such as loss of function or arthritis. Additionally, it can also lead to psychological issues as well as loss of playing time. Therefore, it is critical to have strategies to address not only healthy training and workouts but also how to promote recovery during downtimes.

Cannabis and inflammation reduction

Too much exercise can lead to a big inflammatory response, which can, in turn, result in injuries. In fact, inflammation is a significant contributor to common sports injuries, such as strains and sprains.  

We know that both THC and CBD have powerful anti-inflammatory properties.  THC can be intoxicating, and there is speculation and some studies that have shown it to possibly have null or even slightly negative effects on athletic performance

CBD has little to no intoxicating effects and is also a very potent anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory that can protect against the oxidative stress that our bodies can experience from strenuous exercise. By reducing inflammation, it speeds up our body’s natural healing process. One small pilot study found that 300mg of CBD used with aerobic exercise could positively alter parameters such as oxygen consumption and decreased markers of exercise-induced inflammation without negatively affecting athletic performance.

Another study looking at CBD found it could improve muscle recovery by decreasing damage and improving strength.  CBD is also neuroprotective and could play a preventive and recovery role in head injury from contact sports. The NFL is funding research to look at the therapeutic role CBD may play in concussion. 

Cannabinoids for pain relief

Another highly appreciated benefit of cannabis in the sports community is its effectiveness in pain relief. While anti-inflammatory properties do relieve pain, both THC and CBD are also known to have analgesic properties, which can help reduce chronic pain and acute discomfort resulting from sports injuries. On the molecular level, they can alter pain perception pathways in the brain, such as activating the descending pain inhibitory pathways, which block the sensation of pain in the peripheral nerves after an injury. 

 A survey study of people who regularly exercised and regularly used THC and CBD found both cannabinoids helped with pain and recovery.   CBD, with its anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects, can be especially useful in addressing the swelling and muscle soreness from strenuous exercise. Unlike traditional painkillers such as opioids, which have high dependency risks and numerous side effects, cannabis may offer a potentially safer alternative. Studies have found it may be a very good viable alternative to opioids and opioid dependency when used for pain management. At the very least, some studies have found that in combination with opioids, cannabis use has been found to allow chronic pain patients to use lower, safer doses of opioid medications, thus reducing the long-term harms associated with narcotics.

Sleep and Anxiety 

Getting adequate rest and sleep is essential to sports recovery, yet sometimes elusive for athletes, especially at high levels of competition. We know the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is critical in our regulation of sleep, and cannabinoids, both THC and CBD, may stimulate and augment this to help modulate our sleep-wake cycles.  Some studies have found that cannabinoids can prevent sleep disturbances, such as middle-of-the-night awakenings and improve the quality of sleep as well as decrease the time it takes to fall asleep. 

Anxiety and stress, unfortunately, are often a part of athletic competition. Again, our ECS has a role in our mood and mental health, which is why many people turn to cannabis for help with anxiety. In Australia, a study identified anxiety as the second most common reason people use medical cannabis.

In the US, after chronic pain, the next most reported reason people turn to medical cannabis is anxiety. Therefore, an area of active research is in the anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects of cannabinoids. However, the anti-anxiety effects of THC vary according to dosing, since higher doses can, in fact, increase anxiety. But studies show that there is evidence that CBD may be an effective treatment for anxiety disorder, also helping to mitigate THC-induced anxiety.  

CBD can interact with the brain’s serotonin receptors. These are the same targets that prescription drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) like Fluoxetine (Prozac) are used to treat anxiety and depression. One study found a single dose of 600mg CBD was able to reduce nerves before a simulated public speaking event without cognitive impairment. And while more research needs to be done on athletes, this may be somewhat analogous to a single sporting event. 

In conclusion, while the potential benefits of cannabis in sports recovery appear promising, it is crucial to note that cannabis use in sports remains a contentious issue due to legalities and doping regulations in organized sports.  Additionally, in the US, there is still a lack of uniformity in cannabis-related laws and cannabis quality-standardization of products across the different states. 

Moreover, the effects of cannabis vary widely among individuals, and improper use can lead to adverse effects. Therefore, it is essential for athletes considering cannabis for recovery to consult with their healthcare professionals, trainers, and coaches while adhering to the legal guidelines and sporting codes in their respective areas.

Got cannabis questions? Ask Doctor Leigh. Send your questions to GreenState’s Editor at and keep an eye out for new answers from Dr. Leigh Vinocur every month.

Dr. Leigh Vinocur is a board-certified emergency physician who also has a cannabis consulting practice for patients and industry. She is a member of the Society of Cannabis Clinicians and a graduate of the inaugural class, with the first Master of Science in the country in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics from the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.

The response to this question was not written or edited by GreenState. The author is solely responsible for the content.