The sports industry is one of the leading markets for supplements to enhance performance. Many of these supplements, however, can have detrimental side effects, and can actually compromise the integrity of an athletic performance rather than improve it. Some such supplements—like velveteen—are either synthetically produced or harvested in unethical ways, while others—such as human growth hormones—are banned substances in addition to being disruptive to a normal hormone profile. Side effects of some of these substances can include impotence, metabolic dysfunction, muscle wasting, and in severe cases, death.
There are certain herbs, supplements, and foods that can improve physical fitness and overall health without compromising wellness or jeopardizing one’s ability to compete. There are several components of training and physiology that come into play when working to increase performance, including building muscle, increasing endurance, enhancing cardiac output, improving lung capacity, and improving recovery. Understanding which safe herbs and nutrients to take, when to time meals and macronutrients, and how to help the body repair more effectively will help increase all of these fitness parameters.
Athletic training improves one’s health and fitness overall; however, it can also place a huge stress on the body due to the increasing energy demands for performance and repair. Assisting the body in protecting itself during this process is of extreme importance. The primary category of herbs to incorporate into a training routine is the group known as adaptogens.
Adaptogens are herbs that help improve the body’s response to stress and have a normalizing effect on the body. When it comes to athletic performance, these herbs help build energy reserves, enable the body to adapt more effectively to rigorous training routines, and recover more effectively by protecting the body against the negative effects of training.
Numerous human and animal studies have been conducted to explore the benefit of adaptogens and how they affect physical performance, specifically those which have demonstrated both increased output and a decrease in recovery time. Many of these studies focus on the ability of adaptogenic herbs to increase ATP, or adenosine triphosphate.
ATP transports chemical energy within the cell for metabolism, and is one of the primary units of energy used by the body, particularly during exercise. During intense physical exertion, the body’s energy demands increase so more ATP must be converted into fuel for muscle tissue. Herbs that are able to target this metabolic process, such as adaptogens, help increase the energy available to muscle tissue during training and therefore improve performance. Additional properties of adaptogens include increasing lung capacity and the amount of oxygen available during exercise, which improves energy and increases strength. In addition to all the physical benefits of adaptogens, these herbs can help take the edge off of the mental stress of training, and no adaptogens are considered banned substances.
Adaptogens for Athletic Energy
Eleuthero: Eleutherococcus senticosus, also known as Siberian Ginseng, is one of the best herbs to incorporate into a training routine. Eleuthero is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to increase Qi, or one’s vital force. This is one of the best herbs for increasing stamina, as studies have shown that it has the ability to enhance mitochondrial function.
Eleuthero also has a strong affinity for the immune system, helping to protect athletes against the toll that training takes on immune function. Eleuthero helps to improve circulation and oxygenation of the blood, making it excellent for increasing energy and alertness during training and speeding recovery time by delivering oxygen and nutrients more efficiently to muscle tissue. This herb is what is known as “ergogenic”, meaning that it helps to generate energy and activity, as well as helps the body to use its fuel more efficiently.
Rhodiola: Rhodiola is another adaptogen that can play a particular role in improving athletic performance. In TCM, rhodiola is considered an herb of longevity and vitality. Rhodiola has an affinity for both enhancing cognitive function and improving lung tissue, meaning it will increase mental stamina during training and help maximize lung capacity.
Clinical studies have demonstrated the ability of this herb to reduce both physical and mental fatigue, enhance mental alertness, and protect cardiovascular function. Clinical and animal studies have shown that rhodiola helps to protect the cardiovascular system from damage due to stress, as well as strengthen the actual heart muscle. Additionally, rhodiola has high antioxidant content, which helps to protect the body on a cellular level against the oxidative stress that results from excessive training.
Hawthorn: Hawthorn is an herb that is traditionally used for high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. While not officially considered an adaptogen, hawthorn exerts many adaptogenic-like effects on the cardiovascular system. Intense athletic training sessions place the heart and cardiovascular system under extreme amounts of stress, so incorporating herbs that exert a protective effect on the heart have massive benefit on both cardio recovery and endurance.
Here’s the technical explanation: Hawthorn increases both the force of myocardial contraction and rate of coronary blood flow, without placing additional demands on the heart. What this means is hawthorn is can increase cardiac output, without actually making the heart work harder. Hawthorn is considered to be a cardiovascular amphoteric, meaning it acts like food for the heart, both nourishing it, toning it, and protecting the heart against numerous forms of potential damage.
Adaptogens for Athletic Recovery
Improving the rate of recovery after working out is just as important as enhancing energy and performance during training. The act of exercising, although very beneficial to overall health, breaks down muscle tissue, increases metabolic waste, and increases oxidative exposure during and immediately after exercise. Rebuilding muscle tissue, removing waste, and minimizing cellular damage all help to reduce the negative physiological impact of exercise, and speed recovery.
Turmeric: Turmeric is a well-known culinary spice that has profound medicinal benefits as well. Turmeric is one of the strongest antioxidants found in the plant world; beyond simply scavenging free radicals, this herb actually increases the body’s ability to defend against free radical damage on the cellular level by stimulating the production of the body’s own internal antioxidants.
Reducing inflammation after hard workouts helps the body recover faster; turmeric reduces inflammation, while also inhibiting the production of NF-kB, an inflammation marker often stimulated by long-term stress.
Turmeric has shown potential in clinical studies to help manage asthma as well, making it beneficial to lung tissue during training. Turmeric is found in the broad-spectrum anti-inflammatory formula Zyflamend that incorporates additional herbs such as Chinese Skullcap to help reduce inflammatory damage in the body.
Grape Seed: Grape seed is another powerful antioxidant that has been shown in clinical studies to reduce exercise-induced damage to muscle tissue, and assist in more rapid recovery after exercising. This supplement is known to reduce muscle soreness and fatigue following exertion, allowing one to return to physical activity more quickly.
In addition to a well-balanced diet and a good quality multi-vitamin, certain specific nutrients help enhance energy output, recovery time, and muscle development during training.
Vitamin B-Complex: A good vitamin B-complex supplement is essential for energy and recovery. B vitamins are key to nervous system health and tissue function, which undergoes additional stress during intense training. Additionally, B vitamins assist in the breakdown of carbohydrates and proteins for energy, support aerobic and anaerobic performance, transfer oxygen to tissues, and facilitate blood cell formation.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C is incredibly important for protecting the immune system from becoming depleted during intense training, as well as protecting tissue from the oxidative damage that results from intense physical activity. Additionally, vitamin C helps stimulate the production of collagen, the type of connective tissue that holds bones and muscles together.
Amino Acids: Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and are the substances your body uses to rebuild the small tears in muscles that occur during training. This supplement is especially important for vegetarian athletes, however all athletes benefit from amino acids before, during, and after exercise. The branched-chain amino acids—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—are especially important, as approximately one-third of your skeletal muscles are comprised of these molecules. Taking this supplement alongside exercise enhances ergogenic activity in the muscles, facilitates quicker muscle repair, and encourages muscle growth.
Just as important to athletic training as a comprehensive supplement routine, if not more so, is a balanced, whole-foods diet. Vegetables, fruits, healthy fats such as nuts and seeds, and lean proteins provide our bodies with the essential vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and energy we need to perform. The quality of the foods that an athlete chooses is the most influential factor in their athletic performance; just like one chooses the best fuel for their car, athletes must choose the best fuel for their bodies if they expect the highest-quality performance.
Macronutrients, like healthy proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, are the foundation fuel for prime athletic performance. These foods work in the same way as herbs to increase available energy and speed tissue repair. Quality lean meats, such as organic chicken, turkey, and fish, combined with a high-quality fats like avocado, organic almond butter, or flax seeds, are perfect pre-workout foods to help provide lasting energy and suppress hunger during workouts. High-quality complex carbs (quinoa, wild rice, whole oats, or sweet potatoes, as well as higher glycemic fruit such as bananas), when combined with lean protein after a workout, helps with muscle repair and rebuilding by restoring glycogen stores. Bananas also contain high amounts of potassium necessary for muscles after intense exercise.
In addition to bananas, some of the best foods for athletes include salmon for their omega-3 fatty acids, whole grains for their B vitamins, dark leafy greens and brightly colored vegetables for their antioxidant content, sweet potatoes for antioxidants and high quality carbohydrates, and eggs, avocados, pumpkin seeds, and almonds for their good fats.
Liquids are also incredibly important for athletes. Divide your weight in half, and that’s the number of ounces of water active individuals should drink on a daily basis. In addition to drinking water every day, electrolytes are essential for helping with recovery and endurance during training. Rather than choosing brightly-colored, artificial sports drinks to quench thirst, reach instead for coconut water, which contains all the beneficial electrolytes without all the toxic chemicals. You can also make your own electrolyte water by infusing regular spring water with fruit (oranges, pineapple, crushed berries), vegetables (especially cucumber) and herbs (mint, rosemary, rosehips, hibiscus).
Written By Betsy Miller, MS, CNS, LDN
Clinical Herbalist, Nutritionist and Health Coach at A Balanced Life Wellness
Betsy's practice focuses on integrating herbal medicines, nutritional counseling, and lifestyle coaching, that helps her clients move towards a new and positive state of well-being.Contact Betsy