When we stop to consider how much our physical frame and physiological systems endure for even a moderate walk around town (coordination, tendon stretching, impact buffering, blood sugar changes, and more), it’s remarkable that human beings perform so well when engaged in physical activity! Good pre- and post-workout nutrition is crucial, as quality fuels provide a lot more than just energy to our bodies, but beyond eating well, herbal support can address three key areas that are important for athletic types and for anyone who is even moderately active: supporting healthy blood and connective tissue, boosting stamina and endurance, and supporting a healthy response to inflammation that follows exercise and exertion. Usually herbs are used internally for the first two areas of focus, and external and internal support can play a role for supporting a healthy response to post-exertion inflammation.*
The foundation: healthy blood, good circulation, supple connective tissue.
The areas that tend to get the most abuse in many athletic disciplines (even walking) are the joints, ligaments that surround them, and the tendons that attach muscle to bone and joints. Muscles themselves can also use support to maintain or even enhance healthy tone.
Stretching and listening to your body are crucial. Beyond this there are some key strategies where herbs can help. Note that it will be important to have a conversation with your physician about taking these herbs alongside any blood-thinning or other medications you might be taking.
First, it is important to build and maintain “strong blood” (a term often used in traditional herbal energetic systems). This really means that the blood should have healthy oxygen-carrying capacity and a normal amount of red blood cells and hemoglobin, so that muscle tissue receives all the oxygen it requires for healthy aerobic activity. Additionally, “strong blood” usually includes the traditional idea of “clean blood”, a somewhat mysterious herbal concept, which usually means that there are normal levels of reactive “free radicals” present in the bloodstream. Normal recovery after exhaustive exercise includes a healthy response to inflammation and its associated reactive chemistry1--and here we turn to herbs to help support muscle tone and support good endurance.
Astragalus (Astragalus membrananceus) is famous, in traditional Chinese herbalism, for “building blood”. It also supports immune function, often an important consideration for athletes. You can simmer a few tablespoons of the root with vegetables and/or bones when making a soup stock, or take about 500-1,000mg twice a day as a capsule or extract.*
Curcumin from Turmeric (Curcuma longa) has a host of beneficial functions in the body, but for athletes one of its most important is the ability to support a healthy response to the inflammation that follows exercise and exertion. Herbalists consider turmeric to have a special affinity to the liver, and the combination of support for this vital detox organ plus also supporting the body’s response to post-exercise inflammation makes it a good choice for daily maintenance, especially during more intensive phases of training. To this end, we usually use about 500mg of curcumin, or alternatively, 3,000 to 4,000mg of whole, ground turmeric root twice daily. In either case, take your turmeric preparations with a little black pepper and in the middle of a meal.
Fish oil and other omega-3 fatty acid sources (from leafy greens or flax seed for example) are another class of nutrients essential for supporting a healthy response to inflammation associated with exercise or heavy exertion. We suggest 2g daily for maintenance, and up to 4-6g daily during peak, intensive training.
One final nutrient is essential for proper energy production inside every cell of our bodies. In some athletes, supplementing with CoQ10 can provide support for energy and stamina by ensuring that exercising muscles have what they need for good performance2.*
“Healthy blood” and a healthy response to inflammation associated with exercise are crucial, but beyond this we also need to help maintain adequate circulation. This is for the muscles again, but even more important for tendons and ligaments where circulation is crucial for all of us, even at baseline.
Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) is a water-loving ground cover plant that grows quite well as an annual all over the world. It is a tonic for connective tissue and supports normal circulation and oxygenation for all organs of the body. The daily dose is five to ten fresh leaves, or about that many droppers full of a liquid extract (tincture). 3 capsules a day is ok if nothing else can be found.*
Dan shen (Salvia miltiorrhiza) is a root, deep red in color, that is used in Chinese medicine to “move blood”--a traditional energetic description for botanicals that support normal circulation. We usually suggest a liquid extract, in doses of 1 mL to 5 mL, taken once or twice a day.*
Hawthorn berries, Blueberries, and other colorful berry fruits are fantastic sources of bioflavonoids which support good circulation, support a healthy response to inflammation after exertion, and support the heart and capillaries so they can continue to perform as efficiently as possible.* Aim for ¼ to ½ cup a day of mixed berries, fresh or (even better) frozen. Jam preparations are also acceptable.
Caffeine should be used with caution. While a little seems to boost performance somewhat, it can also restrict circulation to the heart and muscles when overconsumed, leading to premature fatigue 3. Play it by ear--I typically find that 1-2 cups of coffee are fine. Other sources (like black tea, green tea, mate, or guayusa) have less caffeine and way more circulation-supporting phytonutrients, too.*
Performance: herbs that boost stamina and endurance and support healthy recovery
Most athletes are interested in ways, beyond training, that they can support themselves as they push the body further in distance, speed, intensity, or all of the above. Usually, one reaches a limit where the physiology’s ability to increase stamina hits a plateau, and continued exertion can lead to burnout, injury, or both. The “adaptogenic” herbs can help support athletes as they push that limit, allowing for athletes to try for more exertion, improvement, and performance. Here are three excellent adaptogens to help us as we bounce back from hard training and work to improve performance in the short term.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) is the root of an Arctic plant traditionally used to support stress and counteract fatigue. Exercise is perhaps the “purest” embodiment of physical stress on the system, and Rhodiola can help both in the short term (before a race, e.g.) and long term by pushing back the threshold of fatigue and getting us ready for the next workout by supporting good recovery 4. Try a liquid extract, using about ½ teaspoon once or twice a day during training, or ½ to 1 teaspoon before a challenging workout or race.*
Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus, formerly known as Siberian ginseng) is a classic athlete’s tonic. It was first researched in Russia to enhance the stamina of its soldiers and cosmonauts, but quickly found its way into the athletic programs as well. 2-3 g of the root are consumed daily, as a capsule or simmered for 10 minutes and strained into a tea.*
Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis, C. militaris) is a mushroom, not an herb, and there is some conflicting research showing that it may promote exercise performance and endurance when taken regularly, with a special focus on supporting cardiovascular health and the aerobic system 5. Typically between 500 and 1000mg are consumed daily.*
Supporting what happens after exercise: supporting healthy responses to exercise-related inflammation and tissue integrity after exertion
In working with active people, it seems that the issues that come up over and over again center around the inflammation that follows exertion, manifesting in muscles and connective tissue. The strategies discussed above are important, of course, as is a concerted program of rest and physical therapy to rehabilitate the injury. Beyond this, we have a lot of great herbs to use both topically and internally that are a great options.
Arnica is used topically as an oil or gel, and internally as a homeopathic remedy (usually the latter is at a 30C potency). It supports the recovery process. Arnica can be combined with horsechestnut and these two herbs make a good synergy (see below).
Ginger makes an excellent compress after exercise or for specific areas around a joint or tendon following exertion. Brew a strong tea by steeping 1 TBS of powder in a cup of hot water for 5 minutes, then soak a cloth with the tea and apply topically once or twice a day.
Wintergreen essential oil is another excellent liniment. It’s a bit too strong to use “neat”, or undiluted, so use about 10-15 drops of oil in 1 ounce of a carrier oil such as olive or grapeseed oil. It has a very cooling quality, and works well in alternation with the ginger compress.
Horsechestnut is a remedy often used internally to support vein health, but it can help with recovery following exertion and is applicable throughout the body. In Europe, it is also used topically for the same reasons. The liquid extract is a great way to use this plant both ways: 45 drops twice a day internally, and rubbed directly onto the affected area topically twice a day.
Note: often many of these herbs are employed at the same time, depending on the situation at hand. For instance, a combination liquid formula made with Hawthorn, Gotu Kola, and Horsechestnut could be used. Additionally, the concomitant use of internal and external herbs along with physical therapy that strengthens the muscles and connective tissues around the injured area yields the best results. For an excellent review of botanicals on sports medicine, see Maha Sellami et al.’s recent paper, available in open access 6.
Notes on training cycles--a runner’s perspective
We don't train for speed or distance--those are just tools. We train to keep going through the tough bits. Speed and distance are ways to get us there. How do you know that you're experiencing difficulty in training? Well, it just feels difficult! But beyond the subjective feeling, there is a semi-objective way of quantifying your level of physical exertion: the ratio of strides per breathing cycle.
A breathing cycle is inbreath-outbreath. This cycle tends to settle into a regular rhythm with strides: during a light jog, you might get three strides in for each in-breath, and three more during the out-breath, for a total of six strides per cycle. Five strides per cycle is still relaxed, but by the time you're at four strides per cycle, you are working a little harder. I aim for this target in my workouts: the first quarter should be at four strides per cycle, the second and third quarter at three strides per cycle, and by the time you're at the last quarter, you should be experiencing some two-strides-per-cycle stints fairly frequently. Two strides per cycle is tough. It's hard to sustain. Try to sustain it.
Since the level of oxygenation required is a direct reflection of your fitness, there's no "pace" that correlates to two strides per cycle. It depends how fast you're going, how far you've gone, and how fit you are. You can get there quickly with speed. You can get there slowly with distance. But I've often thought, breathing in-out-in-out with every step, how the feeling I'm experiencing is the same feeling all humans have had at this level of exertion. It's universally relatable. We may be going at different paces, but it's tough - and if we can push through it, we feel amazing! It's an altered state few get to touch, let alone indulge.
Speed is the tool of fire: it's short, but intense. There are a couple of ways to experience difficulty using speed: you can go at a tough pace for a medium distance, or you can go really fast for a short stint, take a little break, and repeat (a practice known as "intervals"). Start with a pace that puts you into four strides per cycle. If you're not moving naturally into a three-strides ventilation cycle by the 1/4 mark, you need to speed up. See how this can work for any distance? If you want to go for two miles, you should be switching to three strides by the half-mile mark. If you want to go for twenty miles, hold off until you reach the five mile mark.
Interestingly, when using speed as a tool, your heart rate is generally higher. Herbs that support this training are often hot and fiery themselves: ginger, cayenne, even turmeric. They support circulation and tissue oxygenation. Areas needing special support during fire-training are the soft, connective tissues of the body: ligaments and tendons. Herbs that support these are cooling and often demulcent: Solomon's seal, comfrey, horse chestnut.*
Distance is the tool of water. It's long and slow, but grinding--eroding at you like waves on a rocky coast. You get to the tough parts by exhausting all your energy--a different feeling from the muscular fatigue that accompanies speed, but an important one to dance with. What's "distance"? It varies from person to person. If you start getting into a two-strides-per-cycle pattern after two miles, even if you start out nice and easy, then two miles is distance for you. But regardless, if you aren't into a three-strides pattern by the halfway mark, you need to pick up the pace.
When using distance as a tool, you need to feed your system with watery, nourishing herbs and foods: oats, marshmallow, slippery elm, even licorice. All the while, pay special heed to your vital fire: we need adaptogens like rhodiola, schisandra, eleuthero and cordyceps if we find that distance workouts leave us feeling achy, depleted, and listless the next day.* Too much yin injures the yang.
Speed and distance are the fire and water, the light and dark, of training. Try for a little of both each week. But both are challenging. Though they reflect balance, we also need to balance difficult training with more restful, "easy" days. If you run three days a week, try for one speed day, one distance day, and one day where you stay at four strides per cycle or more for the whole run. This gives you a chance to warm up your body and then maybe do some gentle stretching or strength training afterwards. If you feel tired, haven't gotten enough sleep, or are a bit under the weather, consider modifying your workout: if you're going for speed, keep the same pace but go a shorter distance. If you're going for distance, keep the same mileage but go slower. Eat well. Take your herbs. Sleep deeply.
Finally, there's a seasonal cycle as well. Find the time of year when you like to go faster and farther. Find the time of year to focus on less vigorous exercise, too. Meditative practices and slow walks give your body and spirit the time to renew and prepare for the next cycle. And the lessons we can learn by walking the athlete’s path are applicable in almost all areas of life: creative projects, intellectual pursuits, parenting, and friendship all follow variations on these patterns. Herbs are there to support us--but we end up with better results by using them mindfully, with an eye to the context we’re in, and in rhythm with the world around us.
- He, Feng, et al. "Redox mechanism of reactive oxygen species in exercise." Frontiers in physiology 7 (2016): 486.
- Sarmiento, Alvaro, et al. "Coenzyme Q10 supplementation and exercise in healthy humans: A systematic review." Current drug metabolism 17.4 (2016): 345-358.
- Spriet, Lawrence L. "Exercise and sport performance with low doses of caffeine." Sports medicine 44.2 (2014): 175-184.
- Ishaque, Sana, et al. "Rhodiola rosea for physical and mental fatigue: a systematic review." BMC complementary and alternative medicine 12.1 (2012): 70.
- Nagata A, Tajima T. Anti-fatigue effectiveness of Cordyceps sinensis extract by the double-blind method. Hiro to Kyuyo no Kagaku. 2000;17:89–97.
- Sellami, Maha, et al. "Herbal medicine for sports: a review." Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 15.1 (2018): 14.