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Herbs for Sports: Natural Support for Performance & Recovery

Woman pouring powder into sporty water bottle.

Modern athletes seeking to support health and performance have no shortage of high-tech, lab-synthesized supplement options at their disposal. However, many active individuals are seeking out more natural options to power their active pursuits, and herbalists have plenty to contribute to the conversation!

There are a few important factors to consider when selecting herbs for athletes, beyond the obvious allergy considerations. The first is to define the goal. Is it increased cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, muscle recovery, mental focus and fatigue, or a combination thereof? The next consideration is what effects the sport or activity has on the body. The stress on a rock climber’s body is very different from that of a long-distance runner. In addition to the direct physical impacts, there are often secondary effects on the muscular system, or from environmental factors, that can derail your training plan. Herbal preparations can be used to assist in the body’s natural ability to recuperate so you can stay on track with your training.

With those considerations in mind, you can create an herbal plan appropriate to the goals at hand. If an athlete is training for a race, they will likely have some sort of training plan established, usually involving several phases: ramping up, ramping down, building of endurance or muscle, and periods of rest. The herbal plan should mirror this. Giving herbs for cardiovascular endurance when the athlete is in a rest period does not make much sense; instead, the athlete may benefit more from fortifying the immune system and promoting recovery. 

If you’re training for an intense activity that will push the body's limits, then there are some other aspects to consider. Prolonged and intense training can deplete the body of essential salts and other minerals because the body is using them up at an accelerated rate. This mineral shortage most often manifests as an increase in muscle cramps that can occur either while the activity is happening or later, during sleep. Similarly, the more I train myself and work with other athletes, the more I have come to understand that there is a fine line between extreme fitness and overexertion. Fatigue can lead to a weakened immune system. Periods of rest and sleep are important to your body’s recovery. After an intense workout, you should have at least eight hours of sleep to recover, maybe more depending on the workout. 

Fit young woman running on a bath.

With this level of training, some forethought should be exercised when looking at the herbal plan, keeping in mind that as you approach the peak of your training, you run the risk of reaching your body’s limit. I like to incorporate daily herbal nourishing infusions to help with mineral replenishment, as I find that they are easy to prepare and are a pleasant way to fit your herbs into a busy schedule. I like to cycle through the herbs I use for the infusions to vary the nutrients and flavors I enjoy throughout my training. Since I drink infusions on a daily basis, the variety keeps things interesting, helping me to stick with my nutritional schedule. 


How do you decide which herbs to use in a training application?

The right herb regime for any given athlete really depends on the person and the activity. Like everything in herbalism, there is no one size fits all solution. The key is to align the herbs with your fitness goals. 

While each herbal plan should be tailored to the needs of the specific athlete in question, I have found that adaptogens are often a great place to start. Adaptogens are herbs that act in flexible directions to strengthen the body and increase resilience in the face of physical and emotional*. Several of the adaptogens used in the herbal endurance training formula below help support the immune system. Similarly, as an athlete is approaching the peak of their training plan, a tincture of equal parts echinacea and Oregon grape root, taken morning and night, offers the immune system a little added support. I recommend taking this combination during the last push in the training plan and through periods of rest. Also, you should not limit yourself to the plant kingdom, as mushrooms have a lot to offer as well. I find that helpful mushrooms work great for most athletes with few contraindications—they can sometimes be bitter, but the benefits are well worth it!

Fit young woman leaning against a tree in an outdoor setting holding a sporty water bottle.

If the goal is to increase cardiovascular endurance, use herbs like hawthorn that support cardiovascular function* or ginkgo to support circulation*. Herbs that increase oxygen absorption are invaluable to muscle performance. Increasing oxygen into the blood, along with supporting the heart and circulatory systems, are both at the core of my herbal plans. Increasing blood oxygenation helps with stamina by reducing the lactic acid buildup in the muscle. The increased oxygen keeps the body in an aerobic state for longer while exercising, thereby delaying the production of lactic acid. This delay may help the athlete push past their plateau and breach the dreaded “wall” that people hit at some point while training (the point at which your body feels that it cannot continue). The “wall” can be a combination of mental and physical fatigue, so I prefer herbs that are versatile in their actions.

I have a base formula that I use for athletes that I build on or modify, depending on the individual's personal goals and challenges. It is also important that I know what motivated the client to set their particular goals and that I understand their health history. If the athlete is a runner because they hope to support overall cardiovascular health, I will add hawthorn to the formula. If the athlete is a rock climber and they need to stay mentally focused as well as physically fit, then I may add some gotu kola. These are just a couple of examples of how this base formula can be customized to the athlete and their sport of choice. From this base recipe, different proportions of these herbs can be used and consumed in any way.

Spoons of colorful powder, reishi mushroom slices and a bottle of pumpkin spice spilling into rustic board.

Endurance Formula      

Ingredients

Directions

Combine all ingredients and store in a dry, airtight container until ready to use.

Pro Tips

  • My favorite way to use this herbal blend is to combine the powder blend with one scoop of pea protein powder and 12 ounces of any milk of your choice. I can bring along this premixed formula in my gym bag for easy nutrition on the go. You can use a blender bottle for fast and simple preparation.
  • If I have more time and am using my herbal blend at home, I will incorporate it into a smoothie by combining the endurance herb powder mixture with protein powder, milk, frozen berries, and raw, local honey in a blender. Blend until well mixed and smoothie reaches desired consistency.
  • Another variation is one I developed for a client. Some long-distance athletes don’t want to consume too much liquid at the outset of training because it’s uncomfortable to have a lot of liquid in the stomach while doing rigorous activity, and stopping to relieve yourself is often not convenient. If this is a concern of yours, combine the herbal powder mixture in two ounces of water, or into your yogurt or oats and consume.
  • There is also a final variation on the endurance formula that is a favorite when camping or when you need a little extra zing in the morning. I love making coffee in a percolator on a camp stove, and I love it even more with herbs in it. I call this a mushroom spice latte (see below). I make this when camping before early morning hikes or sip on it when I am driving to the ski slopes. This coffee is the perfect start to my day! As a fun twist, I will sometimes add this blend to hot chocolate instead.

Young woman in a flannel shirt, smiling, while holding a warm beverage in a natural setting.

Mushroom Spice Latte

Ingredients

Directions

  1. Make a reishi mushroom decoction by boiling the slices in 12 ounces of water for at least 20 minutes.
  2. Discard mushrooms and make coffee using the reishi mushroom decoction in place of plain water.
  3. Combine powders in a heat-safe jar or pitcher.
  4. Combine powder blend with 12 ounces of reishi mushroom decoction coffee.
  5. Add your milk of choice and raw, local honey to taste.

Herbs can be a great exercise partner. Develop a plan and use them to support your fitness goals. These potent plants can really make a difference!

 

Want More Plant-Based Recipes for Athletes?

Make Your Own Energy Gel with Chia and Cordyceps!

 

You may also enjoy:

Metal measuring spoons full of dried herb powders on top of a wooden background

  *This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. For educational purposes only.


Topics: Recipes, Herbalism

Chris

Written by Chris on December 25, 2018

Chris Kitchen has his own herbal consulting practice, Mandragora Herbal, just outside of Seattle, Washington. He is a member of the American Herbalist Guild and studies at the Hermit's Grove in Kirkland, Washington. Chris’s pastimes also include gardening, rowing, skiing, spending time outdoors and taking care of his rescue animals.

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