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Going Green: Fuel Your Run with Adaptogens

Is it time to swap sports energy drinks for herbal energizers?

Sports energy drinks are often branded as good-for-you performance enhancers, but many are loaded with caffeine, sugar and other artificial stimulants. They have been linked to irregular heartbeats, elevated blood pressure, kidney damage and ironically, fatigue. If you’re tired of using them to power through runs, consider going herbal. Adaptogens are a class of plants known to help the body naturally adapt to environmental stressors by supporting the production of stress-related neurotransmitters and hormones, and they’re growing in popularity in health and wellness circles.

Often prescribed in homeopathic medicine, adaptogens have been used for centuries. In the 1970s, the Russians studied them intensely to learn how they could help their astronauts, soldiers and Olympians perform. While more than a dozen plants fall into the category (some have been tested for their medicinal properties, others haven’t), several are promising for athletes trying to get an edge by organically improving energy levels. 


Ashwagandha superfood powder and root on cutting board on wooden table.
Photo: Getty Images

A sacred herb in Ayurvedic medicine, Ashwagandha has been scientifically shown to improve insulin sensitivity, reduce stress and increase stamina. A study published in the Journal of Ayurveda Integretive Medicine showed that elite cyclists who took 500 mg capsules of Ashwagandha twice per day for 8-weeks had improved aerobic capacity. In contrast, there were no changes in the elite athletes who were given a placebo. A similar study was conducted in 2015, this time for 12-weeks with 50 athletic participants. At the end of the trial, those who were given Ashwagandha had a greater endurance compared to those given a placebo. Ashwagandha can be taken as a capsule, as well as a tincture. While there are no major side-effects associated with it, it can cause mild stomach upset.

Rhodiola Rosea 

Chinese herbal medicine from Shennongjia area-Rhodiola rosea dried uo.

If you’ve lost your desire to train, or are feeling general fatigue, this flower may be worth checking out. In a study published in the Journal of Strength Condition and Research, participants who took Rhodiola Rosea before exercise not only performed faster but reported feeling less tired. Researchers attributed the latter to an increase in endogenous opioids production, which influences dopamine levels. Rhodiola Rosea may also be beneficial if you’re in an exercise slump due to chronic fatigue. In one 2017 study, researchers observed that individuals taking 400 milligrams daily experienced a shift in energy levels after just one week in an eight-week trial period. Because of its stimulating properties, most experts recommend taking it early in the day to avoid sleep interference.


Eleuthero leaves.
Photo: Getty Images

This adaptogen, formerly known as Siberian ginseng, is among the best-researched for relieving stress and boosting energy levels. The herb has been shown to significantly improve the response to physical and mental stressors such as loud noises and increased workload. There has been extensive research on Eleuthero’s ability to help minimize fatigue during endurance activities by protecting the body from stress, as well as enhancing focus during moments of fatigue. In one 2010 study by Kuo et al, researchers found that athletes that took eleuthero supplementation boosted endurance time and elevated cardiovascular functions. The supplementation also seemed to increase fat utilization.


Dried lanky mushrooms
Photo: Shutterstock

This wild mushroom has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries and can be taken as a tea or capsule. While it’s been debated on its effectiveness to enhance athletic performance (one study from 2004 showed it had no effect on aerobic capacity), the fungi is still revered from its bioactive components that boosts multiple aspects of the immune system. It contains adenosine, a nucleic acid that helps make energy carrying ATP. It’s also rich in B vitamins, essential amino acids. For runners, it may not only add an additional buffer to intense training sessions but increase their ability to handle more challenging workouts as indicated by a small study published in the Journal of Dietary Supplements.


Photo: Getty Images

This root hailing from the Peruvian highlands has been used as a caffeine-free performance enhancing superfood is said to have been consumed by Incan warriors to enhance stamina and endurance. One 2012 study published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine found that Maca boosted physical and mental energy, lowered stress, and stimulated brain activity. An earlier study published in 2006 found that maca boosted focus in the same way a cup of coffee might by stimulating and nourishing the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. The plant does this by providing optimum levels of nutrients that are utilized by the body’s endocrine and nervous systems.

A Word of Caution

In most studies with adaptogens, participants took supplements before engaging in exercise. However, most experts recommend following product directions or speaking with a homeopath or herbalist to further customize your dosage. Adaptogens can be found in most health food stores or herbal shops as well as online, but not all can be taken indefinitely or mix well with certain medications. Most of these herbs should be avoided if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.