Cannabis for Contact Sports

How one elite athlete stays on top of her game with CBD and medical cannabis.
By Anna Symonds On July 24, 2019
Anna Symonds being tackled by an opposing team in a rugby match.
Anna Symonds dodging a tackle in a rugby match.

Rugby is a physically demanding sport that requires both mental focus and a high tolerance for pain. It’s a full-contact tackle sport with no pads and no helmets, and the game flows freely with few stoppages – meaning continuous sprinting and collisions throughout the full 80 minutes of the match.

At age 38, I’m in my nineteenth year of playing rugby. Despite being ancient by the competitive standards of my sport, my physical conditioning and overall health are at the best of my adult life. I’m still competing at the top level of the U.S. domestic women’s competition – and I’m convinced that the healing properties of CBD and cannabis, along with a nourishing diet and regular therapeutic movement, are crucial to my success and longevity as an athlete.

I play in the USA Rugby Women’s Premier League (WPL), which is comprised of the top ten teams in the country and is the highest level of women’s rugby competition in the United States. It’s the arena for America’s biggest, fastest, most powerful and athletic and skilled women’s rugby players. The WPL currently can be characterized as semi-professional – as rugby in the United States is still going through the process of full professionalization, like football went through in the 1950s – but it is the level that will be fully professional once that process is complete.

Thanks to CBD and full-spectrum cannabis, I’ve been able to continue to perform at a high level in a very tough league. I’ve dealt with countless injuries, including surgeries and broken bones, but rugby is my passion. I love the game. Fortunately, for the past several years medicinal cannabis has completely replaced all the pharmaceuticals that I previously used – prescription painkillers, anti-inflammatories, and muscle relaxants. Nor have I taken any over-the-counter painkillers like aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen for nearly five years.

Cannabis – used with increasing knowledge and precision – has empowered my athletic world. I use cannabis socially, too, but I no longer drink alcohol. There are three major areas where I’ve found that cannabis can be very helpful as a healing option: precovery, recovery, and injury management. 

“Precovery”

Cannabis has been a great asset to me in preparing for athletic competition. The goal of pre-competition readiness, aka “precovery,” is to optimize my physical, mental, and emotional condition leading up to game-day so that I can perform at a peak level. Cannabis helps in all of these areas.

I take full-spectrum CBD-rich supplements as part of a carefully considered health regimen to buffer stress, control systemic inflammation in my body, and to support overall wellness. The night before competing, I also like to consume cannabis usually in a smoked form. (As a resident of Oregon, my cannabis consumption is fully legal under state law.) This provides several benefits – a calm, relaxed mental state, relief of anxiety and muscle tension, a good appetite to fuel up for the next day, and help in getting a deep, quality night’s sleep. 

When I first started consuming the night before competition, the improvement in my game condition and performance was noticeable to me – and smoking cannabis made the precovery process more fun, too. Instead of experiencing a lot of pre-game physical anxiety, I get to set it aside and laugh and bond with my teammates. A third to half of the team uses cannabis before or after the game.

Recovery

The importance of recovery in competitive sports cannot be overestimated. Athletes need to be able to perform at 100% again as soon as possible for consistent improvement and maximum achievement – both after competition and while training.

I’ve experimented with and honed my recovery protocols and, though they vary somewhat, cannabis plays several important roles. Immediately after the game, along with hydration and high-quality calories I generally consume cannabis in some form. I will use a ratio of CBD and THC that is most appropriate for my needs at the time. THC offers more potent relief for acute pain, while CBD enhances and rounds out THC’s effects and, as a steady supplement, maintains a systemic anti-inflammatory effect.

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Anna Symonds on the ruby pitch, tackling a memever of an opposing team.

Cannabis provides rapid relief for fresh new bruises, strains and abrasions, as well as for deeper injuries like sprains or gouges, which are a regular part of rugby. Applied topically and consumed internally, cannabis remedies can relax stiff and painful muscles and quiet excessive contractions in a way that allows for deeper, restorative stretching.

A notorious appetite-enhancer, cannabis also promotes the food re-fueling process by easing the nausea and angry stomach that I sometimes experience after an intense day of competition. What’s more, cannabis doesn’t cause the negative gastrointestinal side effects of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen or the severe adverse reactions triggered by many prescription drugs.

I often like to smoke a pre-roll for the convenient, rapid, and reliable pain relief and muscle relaxation that it offers. This method of consumption is effective and predictable, though I also find (trusted) vape cartridges and (full-spectrum) CBD capsules especially convenient for traveling.

If at all possible, I will take a hot, post-game, epsom salt bath ASAP to soak my aching body – and ideally I’ll also use cannabis-infused salts so that I can feel muscle relief penetrating from outside as well as inside.

After the bath I apply cannabis salves to any abrasions to promote healing. The skin is the body’s largest organ and a major protective barrier against illnesses, so it’s really important for athletes to pay attention to caring for it.

Numerous components of cannabis have natural anti-bacterial effects, and I’ve found these kinds of salves to help heal my skin more quickly than drugstore antibacterial ointments (which may contribute to antibiotic resistance). As needed, I’ll also use other topicals like oils or muscle rubs to layer additional localized treatment to especially sore spots that need extra relief and soothing.

Sleep may be the most important component of recovery for the brain and body – and not getting enough of it detracts deeply from how we function. THC-rich cannabis decreases the amount of time it takes us to fall asleep (sleep latency), while CBD supports greater sleep quality (deeper REM sleep). For me, cannabis fosters a deep and rejuvenating sleep where I feel notably better when I wake. It can also allow me to fall asleep and stay asleep through the pain of injuries that would otherwise keep me awake.

Cannabis and Injury Management

Injury is an inevitable part of sport, and while it definitely sucks, it’s part of the process that has to be expected – especially in a collision sport such as rugby. You never know when you’ll suddenly be sidelined with a new mountain to climb – maybe surgery, maybe time off, maybe crutches, and without question lots of physical therapy.

Pain relief is a major component of injury management, and cannabis helps me – and many other athletes – manage both acute and chronic pain with few negative side effects. It is an effective but gentle analgesic without the bleeding gut and liver problems caused by NSAIDs or the highly addictive pitfalls of pharmaceutical opioids.

When I use cannabis, it doesn’t numb my pain, but it buffers the pain and deflects attention from the burden enough to make it much more manageable. It enables more and better functioning, so I can massage the painful areas and walk and move with a greater range of mobility. It helps me heal more quickly.

Through the years I’ve had countless injuries, including all manner of strains, sprains, and scrapes (the regular stuff), but also severely bruised and broken bones, herniated and bulging spinal discs, torn ligaments and cartilage. I’ve had to undergo hip surgery, sports hernia surgery, an avulsion fracture, a permanent crush wound over my ankle bone, deep turf wounds (and community-acquired MRSA from one), chipped teeth, bone spurs and, of course, numerous blows to the head. I’ll never fully recover from the sum total of all these injuries and be the person I used to be before I got hurt, but I’ve seen great improvement with cannabis, notably for spine-related pain, and for concussion recovery with CBD.

Over the years I’ve also been prescribed a rainbow of pharmaceuticals: opioid and narcotic painkillers, muscle relaxants, steroid injections, and more. Indomethicin, a heavy-duty prescription anti-inflammatory, gave me bleeding ulcers and stomach pain when I took it for 6 weeks in order to play through the avulsion fracture in my foot. Playing was worth it to me, but I’ve since become aware of better healing options.

Now I’d treat a foot fracture with heavy-duty CBD!

When I had sports hernia surgery in December 2017, I used only full-spectrum cannabis and CBD products in my post-op recovery, and it went as well as I could have hoped – my healing was quick, the pain was manageable, and I was much more functional than the previous time I had surgery.

Athletes for Care

Those are some of the ways that I have used CBD and cannabis to enhance and extend my career as an athlete in very rugged, injury-riddled sport.

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Anna Symonds, rugby player, smiles a huge grin directly at the camera. She has a bleached-blonde undercut, and is weaering a navy blue tee-shirt.

As a 38-year old woman who competes with much younger athletes in a top-tier rugby league, I’ve learned to appreciate that cannabis isn’t just a psychoactive substance with some therapeutic side effects. I think of it first and foremost as a multifaceted therapeutic substance that can have psychoactive effects that are easily manageable. Full-spectrum CBD offers a non-intoxicating avenue to experience the benefits of cannabis, while THC, the high causer, also has very important medicinal properties that work synergistically with CBD.

Elite competitors who excel in many sports have been using cannabis to heal and relax for years. And we are increasingly coming forward to tell our stories. As a member of the nonprofit advocacy organization Athletes for Care, I’ve been speaking publicly about my experiences with CBD and cannabis with the hope that others who are struggling with pain might find their way to a safe and speedy recovery.


Anna Symonds is the lead educator for East Fork Cultivars, an Oregon-based supplier of sustainably-grown CBD-rich cannabis flower and full spectrum cannabis oil extracts.


Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.

Revision date: 
Jul 23, 2019