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CBD: What is it and will it improve cycling performance?

Emma Cole
27 Sep 2021

As CBD is becoming more and more popular we take a look at the supplement, its uses and its potential future

CBD, the supplement which seems to be everywhere. It's in gels, drinks, chamois cream and even pizza these days.

Already prevalent in rugby, golf, and cricket, CBD is taking the sports world by storm and it shows no signs of disappearing. So is CBD the next big thing in cycling? And is it legal?

In April this year, UCI Continental Professional cycling outift Team Skyline announced a sponsorship deal with the company Gold Medal CBD and Tokyo 2020 was widely viewed as the first time athletes could use CBD in their preparations for the Olympic Games.

Ex-pro and disqualified Tour de France winner Floyd Landis’ CBD company Floyd’s of Leadville boasts many elite athletes as ambassadors, including cyclists Sarah Sturm, Gordon Wadsworth and Peter Stetina.

The global CBD industry is projected to be worth $13.4 billion (£9.7 billion) by 2028, according to Grand View Analysis.


What is CBD?

CBD is a naturally occurring compound found in the cannabis plant and is also known as cannabidiol.

It is one of hundreds of compounds, called cannabinoids, which make up the cannabis plant.

It is neither intoxicative nor has a psychoactive effect unlike one of the plant’s more well-known cannabinoids, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis which gets people high.

A World Health Organisation (WHO) report states that ‘CBD is generally well tolerated with a good safety profile’.

Is CBD legal in the UK?

Like Ketone Esters, CBD is legal in the UK.

CBD products are categorised under the Novel Food Regulation which means they have to be marketed as a food supplement rather than a medicine.

In 2018 the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) removed CBD from its prohibited substances list but other compounds found in the cannabis plant are still banned including THC.

Cannabis is an illegal class B drug in the UK and almost all cannabidiols are controlled substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (excluding CBD).

What form does CBD come in?

There are three spectrums of CBD: full, broad and narrow, which indicates the number of other compounds of the cannabis plant present in the CBD itself.

A full spectrum product contains CBD and a small amount of THC (less than 0.2% otherwise it is illegal).

A broad spectrum product contains all the compounds of the plant including CBD but does not contain any THC.

A narrow spectrum product (also called Isolate CBD) contains only CBD and no other compounds of the cannabis plant.

There are many different types of CBD products, from capsules, oils, patches, balms and gels to drinks, gummies, pillowcases and even yoga classes.

According to neurologist and medical cannabis expert, Professor Mike Barnes, the most effective way to ingest CBD is as an oil under the tongue.

‘Most people take CBD as an oil under the tongue as it can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream. Then its effects will last about 4-6 hours.

‘Essentially, it depends on what you want CBD for as to how you should take it. For instance, for a painful joint or muscle you could use a balm to rub into the affected area.’

What are the potential benefits of CBD for cyclists?

CBD advocates say it can aid post-training recovery, improve sleep quality, and reduce anxiety.

‘CBD in general can help with anxiety and physical pain,’ says Team Skyline Sports Director Michael Tacci. ‘It helps with not only managing nagging minor injuries, bumps and bruises, but can also assist with pain management on the bike during hard efforts.

‘Most importantly, CBD anecdotally has been seen to significantly improve post-training recovery’.

Ex road pro and gravel and endurance cyclist Peter Stetina first started using CBD in 2015 after he broke his leg at the Tour of the Basque Country when he was looking for an alternative to prescription painkillers.

For Stetina, the biggest benefit he gets from CBD is improved sleep quality.

‘When I take the capsules around dinner time I feel I can fall asleep sooner,’ he explains. ‘It helps me get to bed early before an early wake-up for race morning.’

He also uses a CBD cream to help with acute muscle soreness post-race.

Notably, Stetina doesn’t use CBD during competition, but he does notice a smoother recovery afterwards due to the supplement’s relaxation benefits.

‘I definitely would recommend CBD to other cyclists,’ he says. ‘There's no grogginess the next morning, no bad side effects, and it is a legal substance in regard to drug testing. I would say just start with the lowest dose and increase to what works best for you, just like anything really.’

Team Skyline rider Wolfang Brandl gets two benefits from CBD.

‘It helps me to calm down after a race, especially because many of our races are usually late evening or at night, and even after a couple days of racing my legs feel less fatigued,’ he says.

Brandl first tried CBD in 2019 when he felt fatigued during a 10-day race and a friend told him to try some CBD cream. ‘I used it and my legs felt pretty good, I actually got a podium result that day.’

Brandl, who is from Germany, adds that CBD usage is more prominent in the US than in Europe.

What to look for in a CBD product?

There is a huge choice of CBD products on offer, with 217 CBD companies currently operating in the UK.

Professor Barnes emphasises the importance of looking for products with clear labelling which shows which cannabinoids it contains and what percentages, and which comes from a credible source.

‘In my view, look for broad spectrum products with clear labelling, clear dosing and which don’t make unnecessary medical claims,’he says.

‘Not all CBD food supplements are created equally,’ says Caroline Glynn, chief scientific officer and co-founder of Pureis CBD. ‘Some products found on the market can contain unwanted contaminants along with levels of THC, and some may contain lower levels of CBD as claimed on the product label, unknown to the average consumer.’

A paper published in April 2020 tested 29 CBD food supplements available on the UK market and found that 34% of products had 50% less of the CBD content advertised and 55% of products had measurable levels of THC above what is considered safe.

How much CBD should I take?

The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) recommends taking no more than 70 milligrams of CBD a day.

However, for Professor Barnes this is controversial.

‘This is based on no science whatsoever,’ he says. ‘I can’t find evidence that shows above 70 milligrams is not safe and some people will need more than 70 and some will need less, it is completely different for each individual. I would recommend starting with a low dose, such as 10mg and slowly build it up’.

Professor Graeme Close of Human Physiology at Liverpool John Moores University emphasises the importance of applying caution until more research is done.

‘There is currently not enough evidence for a recommended dose but it makes no sense to go over the FSA’s limit.

‘If you are on other medication, you should speak to your healthcare practitioner before taking CBD and certainly don't jump in taking stupid amounts.’

Is CBD doping?

Many CBD products on the market contain CBD as well as other cannabinoids, which means that this could be problematic for athletes in WADA-sanctioned sports.

‘An athlete could take a CBD product that is 0% THC but happens to have some of the potentially therapeutic non-psychotropic cannabinoids such as Cannabigerol (CBG) and WADA could decide to test for that, and the athlete would fail a drug test for CBG,’ explains Professor Close.

‘Unless WADA removes all the cannabinoids from their prohibited substance list, or names the specific psychotropic cannabinoids which are banned and which it will test for, it becomes very difficult for an athlete to try CBD safely.’

Close adds that this leads to ethical challenges in research into CBD, as athletes could be given products which cause them to fail an anti-doping test.

Of note, is that WADA recently announced it will reopen discussions about removing cannabis from the prohibited list next year.

Debate on THC

Whilst there is a general consensus amongst experts that CBD isn’t performance-enhancing, there is debate over how much THC is legally allowed to be in a product and how effective a product is with all the THC removed.

‘Some people have read the legislation to believe there should be less than a milligram of THC in a product but that is misunderstanding the legislation,’ says Professor Close. ‘My reading of the current legal status is that there should be no detectable THC in the final product.’

‘No one can hand on heart tell you whether a product will be effective with all the THC removed because of something called the entourage effect,’ he adds. ‘There's evidence to suggest that you need the full spectrum of cannabinoids, even if there's not a huge amount, for all to work synergistically well together.

‘We've got to remember that the research is miles behind where it probably should be because it's been prohibited for decades.’

The future of CBD in cycling

Honest Hemp, a CBD company which currently supplies an unnamed cycling club, feels that interest in CBD is growing and wants to educate people about CBD.

‘We are involved in ongoing studies with Hull University to enhance and develop our products and we continue to educate people that CBD does not get you high – as some people wrongly assume – but does have a positive effect on recovery, which in turn enhances performance,’ explains the company’s founder Christian Sanderson.

Professor Barnes predicts better quality products, better labelling and more understanding will come to the market.

‘CBD is not a fad, it is an industry that is here to stay and I think it will help athletes generally,’ says Barnes.

Professor Close agrees.

‘CBD isn’t going away. I'm actually quite excited about what this product can do but I’m also cautious,’ he says. ‘It is the most controversial and complicated supplement to hit the industry in the last 20 years.’

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