Herbs, Super Foods & Nutritional Supplements to Support Athletic (Sports) Performance
Apart from implementing principles of healthy diet and lifestyle, the following supplements, super foods, herbal remedies and dietary recommendations can be effective in improving athletic performance, boosting immune system and shortening the time of recovery from injuries.
- Ashwagandha (also called Indian Ginseng) and Rhodiola. Athletes also need mental and emotional support as their profession can be very stressful leading to adrenal fatigue and sleep problems. Adaptogenic herbs such as Ashwagandha and Rhodiola can be very beneficial for them. There are athletes who claim that after few weeks of taking high enough doses of these herbs they managed to improve their emotional health and slept much better. Fifty-seven resistance trainers were given either a placebo or 300mg extract of ashwagandha root twice a day for 2 months. During the eight weeks, the men did a resistance training program that targeted major muscle groups in the upper and lower body. After 2 months, upper body strength improved significantly more in the ashwagandha group: the placebo group increased the amount they bench pressed by 26.4 kg (58 lbs). But the ashwagandha group increased theirs by 46 kg (101 lbs). Similar results were obtained for lower body strength. The placebo group increased their leg extensions by 10 kg (22 lbs) compared to a 15 kg (32 lbs) increase in the ashwagandha group. Ashwagandha group also built bigger muscles: arm muscles were 5cm larger in the placebo group but 9cm larger in ashwagandha group; chest muscles were 1.5cm larger in the placebo group but 3.5cm larger in the ashwagandha group. In addition, ashwagandha improved muscle recovery time better than placebo and significantly reduced muscle damage, produced significantly greater loss of body fat percentage, and significantly increased testosterone levels more in the ashwagandha group (>, >, >).
In another study Ashwagandha doubled the swimming performance in rats and prevented decrease of adrenal cortisol & vitamin C (which occur due to swimming stress) (>).
Proper cognitive function of the brain, focus and response time are also important aspects of athletic and sport performance. In one controlled study, healthy men on a daily dose of 500mg of standardized Ashwagandha extract experienced significant improvement in their reaction time and task performance (>). According to a 2-month study 50 adult subjects on 300mg of Ashwagandha root extract twice daily significantly improved general memory, task performance and attention (>).
- Russian researchers found Siberian Ginseng (Eleuthero) to be an excellent herb to enhance athletic performance as well as to strengthen the body during times of stress. Researchers from Taiwan also confirmed that Siberian Ginseng is capable of improving athletic performance. Researchers summarised that "Eleutherococcus senticosus is an effective nutritional ergogenic aids for people who perform endurance exercises, but the exact mechanisms involved need further investigation." Also other ginsengs are known to increase energy levels, relieve stress, enhance immune system function, control blood sugar, and improve cognitive function. However, only Siberian Ginseng can be used by those who suffer from high blood pressure. In fact it may even help to lower increased blood pressure. Compared to Asian or Panax ginseng, Siberian Ginseng may have more of a stimulatory (energy boosting) rather than an adaptogenic effect. Often promoted as an athletic performance enhancer, Siberian ginseng may also have moderate benefits in promoting recovery following intense exercise.
- Ground Fenugreek mixed with Manuka honey, raw honey or molasses increases protein absorption, improves digestion and strength. A double-blind study found that male weight lifters who took fenugreek extract had significantly increased upper and lower body strength compared to a placebo (>).
VITAMINS & MINERALS
- B Vitamins (B-complex): 50-100mg a day with breakfast. B-vitamins include thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), cobalamin (B12) and folic acid (folate). These micronutrients are necessary during the body’s process for converting proteins and sugars into energy, and are used during the production and repair of cells, including red blood cells. Active individuals lacking in B-vitamins perform worse during high-intensity exercise and have a decreased ability to repair and build muscle. A daily low intake of less than one-third of the RDA for several of the B vitamins (B1, B2 and B6) and vitamin C, even when other vitamins are supplemented in the diet, may lead to a significant decrease in VO2max and the anaerobic threshold in less than four weeks.
- Instead B complex it is more beneficial to take a good quality and high in B Vitamins Multivitamin (such as Healthy Mega by HealthAid) twice daily with meals to improve metabolism, boost energy and help your body maintain strong immune and nervous system.
- In addition to Multivitamin you also need Vitamin D3: 5,000 IU a day with breakfast (don't take D2). The research on contact and non-contact injuries and vitamin D is too strong to ignore, and proves that vitamin D is a game changer. Vitamin D literally saved athletes in the NFL as without supplementing this vitamin they constantly struggled with muscle problems. In addition, vitamin D is extremely important for the immune system and bone health. Vitamin D is known as a muscle hormone. While in most collision sports there is an increased risk of fractures, improved muscle function excites athletes far more than bone health. It is important to know that almost all people are deficient in vitamin D and that dark-skinned and black individuals are at even higher risk of the deficiency. Also without enough Magnesium vitamin D is useless in the body as without this mineral vitamin D can’t be converted in the kidneys to its final form. Vitamin D must be taken with magnesium also because it leads to magnesium deficiency and because most people today are already magnesium deficient. New Research Shows Vitamin D Can Dramatically Increase Athletic Performance >
- Magnesium: 2 x 200-400 mg 30-60 min before breakfast and before bed. Studies on athletes have shown low dietary intakes of magnesium (>). Most athletes think zinc is more important, but magnesium seems to be more beneficial for them because apart from the fact that like zinc it benefits hormones it is much more important for the muscle performance (>). The body stores its magnesium in bones and soft tissues (including especially muscles), which makes its availability extremely important to athletes and all those who train or work out on a regular basis. Magnesium is a crucial factor in the production of ATP, which provides energy for the muscles. Strenuous exercise greatly increases the demand for muscle energy and triggers a magnesium-dependent process to continuously supply the ATP needed to fuel performance.
- Iron deficiency anaemia is a common problem among athletes, and if you are low on iron, your ability to transport oxygen is impaired causing lack of energy. Low iron levels can ruin an athlete’s season and increase the risk of injury because it intensifies tiredness. Best natural sources of iron are spirulina, chlorella, moringa, wheat grass, barley grass, molasses, kale, spinach. The best iron supplement is iron bisglycinate. Always take iron with vitamin-C as it doubles its absorption. On the other hand coffee, black and green tea and anything with caffeine reduces iron absorption.
- Zinc: Take 25mg of elemental zinc a day with meal. Eat also 2 tablespoons of soaked overnight in distilled water pumpkin seed. Normal cell division, strong immunity, hormonal balance, brain function, digestion of proteins, and metabolism depend on having enough zinc in the body. Zinc also aids in repairing tissues after exercise and plays a key role in hormone production, including testosterone, which is essential for building lean muscle mass. Unfortunately, like it is in case of vitamin D or magnesium, deficiency of zinc is a huge problem today due to soil depletion, stress, use of stimulants and refined diet. Make sure you take zinc with 0.5-1mg of copper. Zinc raises the levels of three important anabolic hormones in the body: growth hormone (GH), testosterone and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). Low levels of zinc correlate with lower levels of testosterone, which can greatly affect strength, body fat, and recovery. According to a study, both serum total testosterone and serum free testosterone were increased after intense training in cyclists as a result of supplementing zinc for one month. Research has also shown increased levels of GH & IGF-1 after intense exercise. Following strenuous exercise, these increases in testosterone, GH, and IGF-1 levels result in increased muscle building, improved recovery time, and increased strength in both men and women. Zinc supplements may cause nausea so take them after main meals such as breakfast. I have tried various types of zinc and it seems in my case only zinc citrate doesn't induce nausea.
- Vitamin B12 (must be sublingual methylcobalamin, not cyanocobalamin): 2000mcg under the tongue, only after breakfast. It adds energy, detoxifies the body, helps produce red blood cells, boosts immunity and helps prevent neurological damage in athletes. Deficiency of this vitamin is regarded as rampant not only among vegetarians and vegans.
- Vitamin K2 helps improve exercise performance by enhancing our ability to utilize energy during bouts of physical activity. Take daily dose of 100-500mcg Vitamin K2 MK7 (must be from fermented natto). Read more about Vitamin K >
- Pycnogenol (or another good quality Pine Bark Extract such as Pycnolife) improved endurance in athletes.
An antioxidant cocktail with pine bark extract, increased endurance by 17%. In another study involving cyclists, the same Pycnogenol supplement, also increased muscle endurance and performance after a single dose taken before the training [>, >].
In a study involving 147 people, a daily dose of 100 mg of Pycnogenol, improved sit-ups endurance, push-ups & running over a 2-month training program. 150 mg per day enhanced swimming & biking scores in athletes preparing for a triathlon. Pine bark extract also reduced muscle cramps & pain, and improved triathlon time scores [>]. Participants were able to exercise on a treadmill longer after taking Pycnogenol daily for about a month. Two groups of people went through a 2-months training program. One was given 100mg a day of pine bark extract (Pycnogenol) and the other one wasn't given anything. The men and women in the pine bark group had significantly better improvements in their 2 mile running time, were able to do more sit ups and push ups, and had significantly less oxidative damage. In the second stage of the study participants went through 1-month training for a triathlon. One of the groups given 150mg of pine bark extract per day. As a result the pine bark group significantly improved their time in swimming, biking and running, and had less oxidative stress and faster recovery times.
Pycnogenol reduces muscle fatigue and muscle damage by preventing the short-term raise in the production of harmful free radicals (cause of muscle damage and pain) after intense exercise. The same study revealed that pine bark extract can increase endurance performance [>].
According to another trial, 200 mg of Pycnogenol per day, reduced muscle pain & cramps in 66 healthy people, athletes, and subjects with blood vessel problems after one month [>].
- Coenzyme Q10 (100mg a day) - excellent energy booster and heart health support. Taking into consideration all the key benefits of CoQ10 a regular supplementation of this excellent antioxidant may effectively strengthen the heart, prevent some side effects caused by regular use of cholesterol lowering drugs such as statins, slow down ageing process, help maintain proper blood pressure and blood glucose levels, my enhance body’s immune function, boost energy and improve athletic performance, stimulate body’s metabolism to accelerate weight loss, and help maintain healthy gums. CoQ10 is extremely important especially for the heart health and heart function (crucial for athletes). You must take 100-200mg per day if you are on statins as this drug causes huge deficiency of CoQ10! Deficiency of CoQ10 and Magnesium leads to heart failure and eventually to heart attack.
– Alpha-Lipoic Acid (600-1200mg a day): It is most effective in increasing body levels of glutathione and CoQ10, improves skin condition, memory, removes heavy metals from the body and increases energy. Together with Acetyl L-Carnitine reduces sciatic pain caused by a herniated disc, lowers blood pressure and was able to improve vascular function in patients with coronary artery disease.
– Acetyl L-Carnitine (1 to 3g per day in divided doses): Like Alpha lipoic acid, it gives many benefits for the brain, nervous system, metabolism, heart, immune system, and blood sugar levels. In one study it imposed a huge energising and rejuvenating effect on ageing rats, and can do the same for ageing humans. It is even more effective when combined with Alpha lipoic acid and CoQ10.
– Often consume foods which increase levels of Glutathione (king of all antioxidants): Asparagus, Okra, Garlic, Onions, Rice bran, Mangosteen, Chlorella, fresh Dandelion leaves and fresh Nettle leaves (rinsed with very hot water to prevent stinging), Chickpeas (Garbanzo beans), Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Maca, Turmeric (organic), Lentils, Parsley leaves, Collard greens, Kale, Brazil nuts, Mustard greens, Radish, Turnip, Watercress, Bok Choy, Rosemary, Berries, Avocado, Peaches, Watermelon, Beets, etc. Keep in mind that cooking (heating) reduces the glutathione content of vegetables by 30-60 AMINO ACIDS
- D-Ribose. One of the studies involved participants with chronic fatigue showed an average of almost 50% increase in energy levels after only 3 weeks and an average overall improvement in quality of life of 30% as a result of taking D-Ribose supplementation. In a trial involved healthy athletes D-Ribose was able to restore muscle energy levels to normal in just three days after a very intense exercise. Muscles of those who were not given D-Ribose still remained fatigued and energy-starved after three days of rest. The heart’s ability to resynthesize ATP is limited by the supply of D-ribose. D-Ribose increases energy levels in the heart muscle improving its function, blood circulation, and speeds up recovery after periods of reduced blood and oxygen supply. Research indicates a possible effect of D-Ribose in supporting antioxidant activity. Studies give evidence that D-Ribose administered before and after intense exercise help reduce free radical production and oxidative damage.
- Branched Chain Amino Acids are popular especially among strength athletes and bodybuilders who take BCAAs during workout. They taste good and may help speed up the recovery and repair processes after a tough workout. A 2010 study found that participants who ingested BCAAs at 100 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight experienced significantly less muscle soreness and damage following a high-volume squat protocol. BCAAs, especially leucine, help regulate protein metabolism by improving protein synthesis and suppressing protein degradation. This benefit may improve recovery of muscles damaged during resistance training.
- L-glutamine - amino acid, essential in intensive athletic training as it quickens muscle recovery after exercise. It also provides energy to the brain, works as mood elevator, enhances the immune system and improves long and short term memory. For bodybuilders, glutamine promotes nutrient assimilation, regulates protein synthesis and stimulates growth-hormone production.
- L-lysine (amino acid) helps convert fatty acids into energy and improves athletic performance taken together with the amino acid L-arginine. Athletes take L-lysine and L-arginine together to boost growth hormones and help muscles recovery when working out. According to one study, as a result of taking 1200 mg of L-lysine and the same amount of L-arginine human growth hormone was increased 8 times! Keep in mind that high levels of arginine may lower lysine levels in the body.
- L-carnitine is another popular among athletes amino acid which in human body is metabolized from methionine and lysine with the assistance of co-factors niacin, iron, vitamin B6, and vitamin C. It plays very important role in cellular metabolism as it transports fatty acids into the mitochondria where those fats are turned into energy. In this way l-carnitine helps athletes to burn fat and get more energy. L-carnitine also helps remove toxic by-products from mitochondria.
- Beta-Alanine (3-6 grams per day) supplementation can help improve your exercise performance and training volume. During high-intensity activity, body accumulates hydrogen ions, causing a drop in pH, leading to fatigue. Beta-alanine increases intramuscular carnosine content, thus improving body's ability to buffer hydrogen ions and delay fatigue.
- Creatine. Creatine is safe and effective supplement for athletes. Research is supportive that it may actually reduce cramps. Creatine is a muscle enhance and a energy booster. Any speed and power athletes should take it, especially when they aim at adding muscle mass. Malic acid is often combined with creatine in order to improve the absorption of creatine.
- L-arginine is a semi-essential amino acid but one of the most important for athletes as it plays crucial role in blood circulation through the production of nitric oxide (NO), a vasodilator which enhances blood flow. It is very beneficial for athletes as it helps to reduce blood pressure while at the same time increasing flow of blood to the muscles oxygenating them and providing nutrients they need to improve endurance. L-arginine also stimulates the release of growth hormones and the breakdown of lipids promoting muscle growth and fat burning. In addition, L-arginine assists in the creation of another important for athletes amino acid creatine. %! Canning is even worse as it almost completely destroys glutathione!
- Chlorella. Chlorella is a microscopic single-cell freshwater algae which has been found in numerous studies to be an amazing health promoting superfood. It is extremely high in chlorophyll through which it helps our body to process more oxygen thus boosting energy, detoxifying our blood and promoting repair of tissues. Studies demonstrated that although regular vigorous physical activity boosts immunity yet too much exercise may actually impair the immune system and natural killer cell immunity, which may be one reason endurance athletes may appear more likely to develop cancer or upper respiratory diseases. Fortunately, there is a solution to the problem in the form of taking chlorella. It was shown that consuming chlorella prevented the negative effect of over-training and the loss in immune function. In a randomized double-blind placebo controlled trial scientists gave participants two teaspoons of chlorella a day for eight weeks, and they noticed a significant increase in natural killer cell activities (>).
- Spirulina is another super algae that is very beneficial for athletes (>). A double-blind study found that spirulina increased the time people could train before they became exhausted. It also significantly reduced skeletal muscle damage and increased antioxidants in the body decreasing free radical damage. Another study has shown that spirulina could significantly improve time to fatigue in a 2 hour moderate intensity run. It also improved fat burning by 11%, and it improved exercise antioxidant status. The main difference between chlorella and spirulina is that chlorella is higher in chlorophyll (energy booster) and more effective in detoxifying and regenerating the body while spirulina is higher in protein and nutrients. However, both are very high in chlorophyll and protein. Consuming both, or even better combined with barley grass, seems to be the best way to go.
- Barley grass powder is a super food which is very high in vitamins and minerals and is also rich in energy boosting chlorophyll which has also anti-inflammatory properties. It can be regarded as complete protein food as it contains all 8 of the essential amino acids. Barley grass powder dissolves in water or a juice making it easy to assimilate its many active ingredients including vitamin B1, B2, B6, vitamin C, folate, Pantothenic acid, Potassium, Calcium, Zinc, Magnesium, Iron, Copper, Phosphorus, or Manganese. It is estimated that it may contain 10 times more calcium than milk, 40 times more vitamin B2 than lettuce, and 5 times the iron of spinach. Feedbacks from barley grass users: "Barley grass is awesome! My grandfather takes it daily and runs marathons"; "The most well-known barley grass enzyme is superoxide dismutase (SOD). Many athletes take this well-known antioxidant to counteract the large amounts of free radicals which are produced by aerobic exercise"; "Barley grass powder helps to restore the alkaline balance in the body. Human blood must remain slightly alkaline in order for red blood cells to carry their maximum oxygen load"; "Barley grass powder slows down ageing process, boosts energy, and improves muscle-building".
- Wheat grass powder. Another excellent energy booster and health promoting super food with similar benefits to those described above with regards to Barley grass.
- Beetroot has also shown to reduce the maximum volume of oxygen needed during exercise, improved time-trial performance in trained cyclists and running performance in healthy adults. Scientists explain that beetroot helps to improve athletic performance mainly through the vasodilatation (widening) of the blood vessels and through reducing the need for oxygen consumption by muscles. For best results eat raw beet salads and drink 500ml to 1 litre of fresh raw beetroot juice.
- Maca helps to boost testosterone and to regulate and utilize stress hormones including cortisol and adrenalin. Take 1 tablespoon or 5 – 500 mg capsules of Maca root powder every day for only 7 days. After that take Ashwaganda or Ginseng (both increase testosterone and are powerful adaptogens able to help in balancing cortisol) for another 7 days. Then, come back to Maca for a week, and again switch to Ashwaganda or Ginseng. Try to use them alternatively for about 3 months. After that take a break for about one month.
- Good Probiotic formula with meals. Probiotics are very important for athletes because they are important for the immune and nervous system and because they are catalysts for other supplements like such as B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, or iron. Many athletes have poor gut health due to antibiotics and poor diet, and as a result their immunity is low and absorption of nutrients in the intestines is impaired. There are examples of athletes who struggled for getting enough iron for a long time until they started taking good quality live probiotics.
Take a good probiotic formula (such as UltraProbio or DailyProbio by HealthAid). Make sure it contains live bacteria that are stomach acid- and bile-resistant as majority of probiotic supplements and yogurts on the market contain dead bacteria or bacteria that are not able to survive in the stomach.
Running or any intense exercise exacerbates gut dysfunction, because blood is diverted away from digestive organs, leading to their hypoxia (depriving them of oxygen). This hypoxia in the gut damages the gut lining, causing discomfort and increasing gut permeability (letting toxins from the gut enter the bloodstream). Such leakage of toxins into the bloodstream increases temperature, also in those who exercise in hot conditions, thus reducing physical performance. Probiotics, however, improve gut function and seal the gut lining preventing damage and leakage of toxins. Therefore, taking probiotics should improve exercise performance in the heat. (>)
In a study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology (>) 10 runners completed two run-to-exhaustion tests under hot conditions (30 C / 86 F, 40% humidity). Before each test, they took a a probiotic supplement multi-strain probiotic with 45 billion CFU of Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Streptococcus strains for one month. According to the results, 8 of the 10 subjects were able to run faster on probiotics. The average improvement was from 33:00 to 37:44, which is about a 14% improvement. That size of improvement in a constant-pace time-to-exhaustion test generally corresponds to about a 1% improvement in a race or time trial, which is definitely significant. (>)
- Omega 3 from fresh ground flax seed and soaked overnight chia seeds give long energy. Since Omega 3 is anti-inflammatory it really soothes aching muscles.
- Glucosamine and Chondroitin to support joint health in athletes.
- Drink plenty of Water (distilled with pinch of sea salt is the best option) - 2 hours before a workout, seep water during (clear urine) as dehydration can cause muscle cramping and fatigue.
- Avoid stimulants such as alcohol, caffeine (in coffee, guarana, chocolate, green tea, cola drinks, etc.), theophylline (in tea) or and theobromine (in cacao and chocolate) because although they appear to give you a short time energy boost yet it is only a borrowed energy, which means sooner or later you will have to pay for it with the loss of energy. And, as soon as you feel exhausted you it will force you to use stimulants again and again thus causing a vicious circle and addiction. Apart from that, stimulants also weaken your immune system and lead to nutritional deficiencies and may contribute to depression and other health problems. Don’t believe media promoting coffee and chocolate as beneficial for our health as those claims are based on studies that are sponsored by coffee and chocolate industry.
- Caffeine is often recommended for athletes but it’s not a wise choice as over time it creates more problems and harm than benefits.
- Strenuous training weakens the immune system through overproduction of cortisol (stress hormone). For this reason you need to boost your immune system by taking Vitamin D3, Magnesium, Zinc, Selenium, Chlorella, Probiotics, Hot and cold alternative showers, and avoiding sugar, fructose, glucose, cheese, milk, dairy, stress, refined foods, antibiotics.
- Hydrotherapy (hot and cold alternative showers) before and after every training and event to improve circulation, oxygenation, regeneration, immunity and detoxification >
- Diet: Complex carbohydrates (whole grains, oats, whole breads) with soaked chia seeds daily and 3 hours before event. According to the book “Athletic Performance Winning Formula” by Robert Haas in order to boost a long-term energy you need to “keep fats and oils to a minimum, decrease protein, and increase complex carbohydrates such as whole barley, oats, and raw vegetables, and drink lots of (distilled) water before, during, and after performance.”
- Avoid: gluten, wheat, sugar, chocolate, pizza, meat, artificial sweeteners, white flour products, hot spices, stimulants (coffee, cola, tea, green tea, chocolate, etc.)
– Sleep 7 to 9 hours each night and if possible go to bed before 10 pm because the more you sleep before midnight the more efficient your rest will be.
Written by Slawomir Gromadzki, MPH
Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2015;12:43
J Sports Med Phys Fitness 2013;53:644-54
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