Energy drinks are often branded as good-for-you performance enhancers, but most are loaded with caffeine, sugar and other 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, and they’re growing in popularity with the health-minded.
Often used in homeopathic medicine, adaptogens have been used for centuries. In fact, 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 organically improve energy levels.
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 contrasts, 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 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.
If you’re not in the mood to train, 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 stimulant-like properties, most experts recommend taking it early in the day to avoid sleep interference.
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 it’s 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 the Journal of Dietary Supplements.
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 to further customize your dosage. Adaptogen can be found in most health food stores, but not all can be taken indefinitely or mix well with certain medications. Neither Ashwagandha, Rhodiola Rosea or Cordyceps are safe if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.