Megan Rapinoe has surely done her homework, right? Sports Illustrated’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year endorses Mendi, a CBD brand that offers capsules, gummies, and a topical salve touted as “athlete-built recovery essentials.” That her twin sister is the company’s CEO no doubt influenced Rapinoe’s decision. Still, she’s a rare high-profile, currently active athlete who has publicly backed a CBD brand. To date, no athletes of Rapinoe’s caliber in the endurance world have joined her.
The fact that nobody at the level of Boston Marathon champ Des Linden or two-time Olympic nordic skier Erik Bjornsen endorses a CBD brand might seem odd. After all, elite athletes do lots of things to maximize recovery, from lounging in compression gear to enduring contrast water therapy to eating gelatin. Why not openly try CBD—a legal product said to lower inflammation and improve sleep—and pick up a new sponsor along the way? As with all things CBD, uncertainty is a key explanation.
Rules Are Rules
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) removed CBD from its list of prohibited substances in 2018. As WADA clarified earlier this year, CBD is the only approved cannabinoid of the more than 100 that are present in cannabis plants. THC (which causes marijuana’s high) and all other cannabinoids are banned in competition, which means they’re prohibited if found during a post-race drug test but are allowed if present during a random out-of-competition test. In contrast, something like the blood booster EPO is banned at all times because it gives the user an unfair advantage in both training and racing.
As many people joked when sprinter John Capel was banned for marijuana in 2006, who wouldn’t want to compete against a stoner? The rationale is that marijuana can theoretically help in some sports, such as soccer, where it might improve a goalie’s eyesight. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) also says that a high athlete can endanger others and is a poor role model.
So cannabinoids and competition—risky. But if CBD and all other cannabinoids are allowed during intense training blocks, why wouldn’t more elites want to find out if they help with recovery?
Fear of Failure
Runner Becky Wade, who has run a 1:09 half marathon and 2:30 marathon, seems like a great candidate to investigate CBD. Wade has chronicled her long-time sleep problems. But, she says, “I find it hard to get past the strong, cautionary tone that USADA uses around CBD.”
Wade is referring to language like the following on the USADA’s site: “Unfortunately, it is impossible to know how much THC or other cannabinoids are in a CBD product just from looking at the label, and it is impossible to predict how each athlete will metabolize and excrete THC or other cannabinoids. The use of any CBD product is at the athlete’s own risk.” (Bolded text is in the original.)
Two-time Olympic nordic skier Ida Sargent says CBD use wasn’t common among her peers before she retired last year. “I think everyone was a little worried about taking anything that wasn’t NSF-certified,” she adds, referring to the organization that determines if supplements are safe for drug-tested athletes. “It just wasn’t worth the risk. The U.S. Ski Team was sponsored by the vitamin company Usana, so we all stuck to only those products, since they were tested and certified to be safe and free of contaminants.”
Molly Huddle, the American record holder in the 10,000 meters and the half marathon, echoes that better-safe-than-sorry approach about CBD and other products that aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. “Any potential contamination is at our own risk if we test positive,” she says. “If a substance is banned in competition, I still won’t take it at all, in case there is still some in my system at a race.”
Some elite athletes probably became even more cautious after triathlete Lauren Goss received a six-month ban last year after testing positive for THC. Goss attributed the THC results to an inaccurately labeled CBD topical she applied to an ankle injury. Some have disputed her claim that a topical solution alone could result in a failed drug test. But it’s understandable that elites might be deterred by her case.
Elite-athlete reticence could also stem from sporting officials’ stances. In October, USA Triathlon became the first U.S. Olympic national governing body to develop a partnership with a CBD brand (Pure Spectrum). Not only have equivalent organizations in other sports not followed suit, but they seem uninterested in discussing CBD in general. When I asked to speak to someone at U.S. Ski and Snowboard, I was initially referred to the USADA. When I reiterated that I wanted to talk about the organization considering a CBD sponsor, it declined an interview. USA Track and Field promised to answer questions but didn’t. USA Cycling didn’t respond to several inquiries on the topic.
A Dose of Reality
Some elites have openly taken the CBD leap of faith, including two-time Tour de France cyclist Peter Stetina. He endorses Floyd’s of Leadville, which is owned by Floyd Landis, who says cannabis helped him overcome pain and depression after being stripped of his Tour de France title for doping. Of his professional cycling peers, Stetina says, “They are definitely interested once they hear it’s legal and natural, but there is still a stigma around it. Guys are scared about an accidental positive so have shied away, but it’s gaining traction.”
Noah Droddy, a 2:11 marathoner, also partners with Floyd’s of Leadville. “Many of my competitors are either using or have tried CBD, some with faster personal bests than I [have],” he says. Droddy declined to name these faster runners but adds, “I don’t think it’s a matter of being purposefully not open about it. If you don’t have an affiliation with a particular brand, there’s just no real point in it. For example, I take an iron supplement. I would tell someone if they asked, but I’ve never had a reason to broadcast it.”
Ashlee Powers, who will run the Olympic marathon trials at the end of the month, found enough benefit from CBD that she started a CBD energy-bar company called—wait for it—Ashlee’s Powers. She also says there are more elite runners using CBD than might appear to be the case, but they don’t publicize their use because of the marijuana association still attached to CBD. “As a result of it being a ‘secret’ tool,” she says, “many of my peers believe it is not being used and are skeptical as to whether it is safe or works.”
Droddy says fears of an accidental positive are overblown. “It would be practically impossible to fail a doping test using a CBD product that does not have additional THC added,” he says. “The THC threshold the USADA is testing for [150 nanograms per milliliter] is much higher than your average workplace drug test.” To further reduce their risk, closer to races, Droddy and Stetina have used CBD-isolate products, which have almost all other cannabinoids stripped out.
The caution about being open might be changing. Since retiring from elite skiing, Vermont-based Sargent has become a regular user of Northeast Kingdom Hemp’s CBD products. She says she would have done so while competing if she had learned about the brand earlier.
Elite practices are always going to have an element of: I’ll do what the person who just beat me is doing. As Wade says, “To be completely truthful and sound like a sheep, the fact that not many pro runners use CBD that I know of makes a difference. If a handful of great, clean runners were open about their CBD use and exactly what they take, I’d be willing to give it a shot.” If an Olympian or two cites CBD as an integral element of their Tokyo Games prep, then we may soon see more endurance athletes following their lead.