mountain bikers riding south boundary trail near angel fire new mexico

Riding South Boundary Trail near Angel Fire, NM.

What makes a good training program good? Everyone wants to feel and perform their best, whether you’re aiming to win an endurance race or ride five miles for the first time.  From nutrition to sleep, it all matters if you’re riding with a goal in mind. Even if you have a coach, constructing a well-rounded training regime requires a lot of self-education. Furthermore, the ability to distinguish good vs. bad information is invaluable, as the internet provides instant access to everyone’s expertise from every perspective imaginable. Throw in bias, topped off with marketing, and the whole shebang can simply be overwhelming.

Let’s look at supplements, for example. A new power player seems to pop up daily, but are the trends worth the hype?  A lot of the “extras” aren’t all that necessary if you are good about the basics, yet some of them stick around for a reason. Unless you live in a cave (which some of us do) it is almost impossible to ignore the celebration surrounding cannabidiol (CBD) and its promise to alleviate symptoms and cure a wealth of health conditions. Many athletes are jumping on the bandwagon, using it as a recovery aid to combat inflammation and post-workout soreness. From protein powders to full-spectrum hemp tinctures and capsules, CBD is slowly proving itself helpful for a number of legitimate disorders, but is it useful as a training and recovery aid?  Will it help healthy cyclists climb to new heights, or should it just be left in the dirt?

The short answer is that it’s complicated, and it really depends on your goal.

Some training and recovery basics

Let’s go through a quick and dirty rundown of training and recovery. The fitness status and experience of the individual will dictate the structure of any plan, as a novice athlete isn’t going to have the skills or base that a seasoned mountain biker will.

Next, a rider’s riding genre needs to be considered. A downhiller won’t train like an endurance racer, and the terrain will also differ. The rider’s goal will dictate the intensity and duration of each workout, quantity of each type of training session that is included in each block, and finally, the length of each block itself will need to be determined. Caloric intake and the type of calories needed to sustain each workout should be analyzed, along with what supplements will be used, if any.

Recovery is just as important as the above elements. You cannot train and gain if you don’t recover. Refueling adequately, sleeping enough, and preparing for the next workout are all essential aspects of a complete training plan.  Recovery allows your body to adapt and move onward and upward toward your riding goal without risking burnout or overtraining.

While progressing through any training program, your body responds to the stresses of exercise by producing a number of important chemical signals that tell your cells to adapt and eventually make each session a little easier. CBD, like many other things, may assist in attenuating pain and inflammation, but it also may kill some important, exercise-induced messengers. Here are some things that we know.

CBD gummies

CBD gummies – they may taste great, but will they help riders climb faster?

When training, inflammation matters

Inflammation is a natural response to the stresses of exercising. After you ride, the worked muscle tissue produces several inflammatory biomarkers that tell the body to repair stressed tissue and synthesize protein. This is a normal, healthy response as long as you’re not overdoing it. Many cyclists get into a habit of taking anti-inflammatory medication after strenuous workouts to help alleviate pain. Some even think they are an ergogenic aid, which is partly on the table. However, not only are they putting a bandaid on what could be too much load during each session, but they are actually killing an important set of messengers.

A number of training studies have shown that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug use (NSAID) post-exercise may decrease protein synthesis by inhibiting the COX-PG pathway.

Similarly, CBD is in the spotlight for its ability to combat inflammation, and some studies have shown at least part of its mechanism to be similar to that of NSAIDs, inhibiting COX and LOX.  Further, CBD inhibits interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-a), both important inflammatory biomarkers involved in training adaptation.

So, does CBD also attenuate muscular growth and dampen long term gains? The jury is still out, as no training studies have been completed, but the concept does make a lot of physiological sense.

CBD oil from organic hemp

This is very potent CBD oil, derived and purified from organic hemp.

Antioxidants are anti-training (sort of)

What about antioxidant use during and after exercise? Aren’t free radicals bad? CBD is a potent antioxidant. Yes, free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS) are a source of cellular damage that over time may lead to the onset of chronic disease and cancer.  And yes, CBD is such a potent antioxidant that it may prevent neurotoxic damage better than vitamins C and E. However, if you pop a bunch of vitamin C after a long ride, you are doing your body a disservice by killing another signal, and several studies support this notion. Is the same true for CBD?

Similar to the inflammatory scenario, ROS are a byproduct of exercise. The longer or harder you pedal, the more ROS your body produces. It does this in response to fuel breakdown, necessary to create usable energy that allows you to continue turning the cranks. Those pesky ROS actually signal your mitochondrial DNA to undergo biogenesis or reproduce. This is one very important way endurance is gained: two mitochondria can do double the work that one can if the workload stays the same, so the work becomes easier and more efficient.

Your body already produces enough antioxidants on its own to handle the stresses of exercise, and antioxidant levels adapt as you train.  Supplements, which may include CBD, are not always better.  Many studies support this claim, showing slower (and even zero) gains in endurance and VO2max improvements over time. You can read about many of these studies, here.

A vape oil cartridge containing a 1:1 ratio of CBD to THC, created by Darwin Brands, known throughout Arizona for their pure and potent cannabis oil. Popular products like this are often used to treat chronic pain, or simply help take the edge off.

What if I’m not training? What if I just want to pedal? What if I am recovering from an injury?

If you’re pedaling to pedal and happy with where you are, then use all the CBD you want. The bottom line is that no one is stopping you from doing what you want to do for you. Just be aware of where information about CBD and cannabis is published, what the sources are, and how it is used.

If you are recovering from an injury, supplementing your regimen with CBD may actually be quite beneficial to help get you back on the bike. Not only does it help reduce inflammation, but it may also relieve pain associated with soft tissue and joint damage, as well as concussive and other closed-head injuries. For those suffering from chronic injuries, it may be a better choice than standard pain killers, especially opioid-based drugs.  There is also a lot of evidence supporting CBD’s use as an anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) agent. To read more about the therapeutic value of CBD, check out this article.

What we don’t know yet

Unfortunately, there aren’t really any good training studies out there that investigate whether or not supplemental CBD will help or hinder training gains in healthy populations, let alone athletes. Most research that does exists centers around CBD’s use as a treatment for pathological conditions like epilepsy, neurotoxicity, and cardiomyopathies.

As social views and political agendas change over time, the ability to conduct training-focused studies will grow as CBD becomes more widely accepted. If you do choose to use CBD, the best advice is to do your homework and look for something that is organic and includes other essential phytochemicals from full-spectrum extract.

# Comments

  • rmap01

    Really appreciate the insight here. I’ve tried CBD to help “lessen” the feeling of muscle fatigue from long, challenging multi-day rides and it does seem to help. While I am very interested in the adverse/unintended effects of supplements like CBD the issue is I have that the studies cited in the link provided do not address CBD specifically but other antioxidants. While I think it’s hard to argue that CBD may not have the same performance “blunting” effects as other antioxidants it doesn’t seem like anyone really knows. Aside from the broader question about whether CBD impacts performance gains I’d also be curious to understand whether there’s any difference in performance impacts from taking CBD orally vs as a balm.

    • Jenny Corso

      I appreciate your feedback. Like you pointed out, there is a huge hole in training study research. CBD’s mechanisms of action can only be delineated based on what we currently know about how it works at a cellular level, but you are correct that it is a physiological comparison. But a lot of the evidence does make sense based on the signalling cascades that are produced when CBD is used – it will be great to see some more specific research done now that it is “legal” to do so. As far as your last question, route of administration is absolutely important. A balm or topical will not penetrate the skin and deliver the drug into the bloodstream. They are great for treating things like psoriasis, for example. Think of it like putting on lotion – those constituents don’t enter your body. Oral administration is unique in its own way because it is metabolized through the liver 100%, before reaching the bloodstream, unlike transdermal (which will penetrate the skin and reach the blood) or inhaled CBD, which mostly bypasses the liver. If you need something that works for joint pain or a localized area, I’d suggest a transdermal. Whole body, inhalation or an ingestible formulation. I hope this helps!

  • JWiesinger

    Sooo proud of you! Keep up the great work!

    Riding for fun and general fitness, I’ve recently started using a CBD product for pain/soreness and sleep… so far so good. I appreciate your research.


    • Jenny Corso

      Thanks, John!! Glad you’re finding it helpful!! And thanks for reading 🙂

  • James G. Camp

    MTB is a different train & recovery from road cycling. Just me, but with road cycling, I have the luxury of miles to tweak the gears to find ideal cadence on smooth asphalt. MTB, the trails are chaos, dodging rocks, roots, fallen tree limbs and anything else nature and unpaved roads thriw at you and you’re not going to have the luxury of fishing around for the right gears. That beating the trails seem to mug you each session requires the human body the necessary time to recover and it’s longer for MTB vs road work. CBD like any anti-inflammatory just makes the pain of a muscle that hasn’t recovered & repaired itself from the last outing. Any form of exercise and the pain is feedback, telling you that you’ve damaged the tissue. So in short, let it heal/recover, no pain is that indicator that the repair is completed. With cycling, we aren’t building muscle mass, maximizing cardio is the goal. Weightlifting is building muscle mass & strength, cycling is cardio & endurance. Each sport of exercise, whether it’s crunches for abs of steel to build the core abdominal torso of your body is designed to optimize performance. My suggestion, like any day of exercise for weightlifting, target a body area. Then do the cardio the next day. Any higher performing athlete really endures the pain to perform at the next level. Some don’t have it in them to tolerate that next threshold of misery. It is what it is. If you are a C or B level rider, A may never be attainable. I think I’m a well rounded athlete, but I also know there are folks that are that and away better than I’ll ever be. So I live with my limitations, sometimes it’s good enough, other times I need to go do something else and there’s only so much that even technology can do for me. It’s humbling to admit it, but a reality each of us has to face.

    • rmap01

      I appreciate your perspective and, for the most part, share your views. As someone that likes to achieve PB’s (even at 50+ years of age) I fully understand and appreciate the necessity of dealing with – and pushing through – muscle fatigue. I also believe in the importance of cross-training for overall fitness (For me that’s a blend of MTB, weights & running). I remember completely stopping use of NSAIDS years ago when I read how it blunted muscle growth thereby negating the effort of muscle building from weightlifting sessions. However, I’ve also read a number of articles about the benefit of fish oil (EPA/DHA) to support muscle growth (by limiting muscle breakdown and enhancing the effect of growth hormone) even though fish oil has anti-inflammatory properties. Obviously, the mechanisms by which fish oil affects muscle growth are different from those of NSAIDs and other anti-inflammatories. This is why I am interested in understanding the science a little better of CBD as it may be possible that the pathways effected by CBD may not necessarily include those that adversely affect muscle growth.

  • Kurti_sc

    very insightful. I have definitely seen the odd effects of taking Vitamin C and other antioxidants after long strenuous routes. I thought I was doing myself a favor by getting some prevention in while I recovered. Your info here confirms what I’ve been suspecting and i’ll likely discontinue that practice going forward. The statement about our bodies having enough antioxidants to cover our exercising efforts is pretty opening. From that point of view and the awareness that we are all just some big marketing experiment by many of these product suppliers, it seems prudent to just avoid it all together – especially the CBD and other related products. There’s a lot of desire to make the data compelling, but no real objective data ever seems to be available. Ever.

    • BBelfield

      It’ll be a while before there is objective data. Right now CBD is fully in the snake oil realm. As someone who has been smoking weed for a long time (I know we’re talking hemp not MJ) I think a lot of the purported effects are pure hippie fantasy mixed with a lot of placebo. Every credible study I have come across ends up using the line “may help/ may relieve” and never any stronger wording. There are other studies that say the CBD alone doesn’t do anything and needs to have the THC component to be beneficial. I’d save your money and recover the old fashioned way of rest, hydration and good foods. And smoke a joint every now and then for mental health.

    • Jenny Corso

      Thank you for the thoughtful comments, Kurti_sc and BBelfield. I really appreciate when someone reads my articles and provides educated feedback. I’ve been professionally researching cannabis for two years now as a biochemical physiologist, and on top of my exercise physiology research background, I can say you both are correct that the jury is still out on its true therapeutic value and how/when it should be used. CBD whether hemp or cannabis-derived is the same compound, however the medicinal effects of it change when it is used in tandem with other compounds in the plant, THC or otherwise. Each combination of phytochemicals have their own effect on each other’s therapeutic synergism, and therefore on different pathological conditions. It isn’t necessarily snake oil in itself, however, a lot of the products marketed can be due to lack of regulation. Consumers do have to be careful where they purchase their products because it can be impossible to know the real background of the individuals selling or producing it unless they are transparent. Legally, journal articles/research studies cannot state absolutes, so you will never read one that says “exercise/cannabis/vitamin c is the solution for____.” You will always read “exercise/cannabis/vitamin c may be a solution for ____.” The way the scientific and medical communities reach a decision on a relevant question and therefore absolutes is through repetitive and reproducible results… a hundred studies that reach the same conclusion will still say “may help/may relieve” individually, but the compounding results solidify reliability of the claims. It’s just the way it works, but it has its legitimate reasons. The body of research on cannabis is “new” again (even though you can find reputable studies from the frickin 1930’s), so it will take time to compound and solidify results, let alone bust down belief barriers in this country. I hope you find this insightful, and again, thanks for your feedback – I truly do appreciate it.

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