What are adaptogens?
An adaptogen is any natural substance that helps your body adapt to stress. They are different from just any herb, vitamin, or mineral because they have the unique ability to respond to any function in the body that requires support.
Why do endurance runners need adaptogens?
Runners are at high risk for adrenal fatigue, which is the result of prolonged stress leading to burdened adrenal glands. Your adrenals are responsible for normal and consistent cortisol output which is necessary for inflammation control, blood pressure regulation and glucose metabolism. Running and overtraining can cause stress on the adrenals because it simulates our “fight or flight” response. Our body, at least initially, thinks it is in a state of emergency, and evolutionarily speaking, it was not designed to stay in that state (of chronically elevated cortisol).
According to Dr. Jeffrey Rocco, orthopedic surgeon and triathlon expert, “Chronically elevated levels of cortisol have a number of undesirable effects for athletes. Elevated cortisol levels lead to a perpetual catabolic state where muscle is broken down, and fat is stored…. Chronically elevated cortisol levels, which are associated with overtraining, lead to suppressed immune system function and reduced exercise capacity.” (1)
Therefore, it is important that we give our adrenals some major TLC! Certain adaptogens help a runner’s body adapt to stress by regulating cortisol output, supporting the organs that take a hit during training, and preventing fatigue and a weakened immunity.
Besides getting more sleep and cutting back on caffeine, sugar, and refined carbs, these five herbal adaptogens can boost your adrenals so you can keep running longer and faster!
1. Rhodiola: Rhodiola root is traditionally used by indigenous Sherpas to adapt to high altitude living. Modern studies show rhodiola is an anti-inflammatory that reduces lactate build up, muscle damage, and cytokine activity, while increasing metabolism of fatty acids. Rhodiola should be used about an hour before prior working out and its effects can last up to 6 hours. (2). Studies show it also has anti-viral benefits that keep you from catching colds during intense and prolonged exercise (3). Rhodiola root is sustainably cultivated in the northern, higher altitude regions of North America. Finding it in the wild is very rare and many countries are regulating wild harvesting due to threat of extinction.
2. Ashwagandha: Ashwagandha is one of the most highly revered herbs in Ayruvedic medicine. It is traditionally used to improve stamina and strength. Modern science attributes that due to its cortisol-lowering and anti-inflammatory abilities. Recent studies also show its potential abilities to maintain blood-sugar levels, reduce anxiety, and improve brain function! It is a dynamo for endurance athletes because it has the capacity to energize and calm at the same time (4). The roots of the plant are harvested for medicinal use, but the entire plant can be used. It grows wild in India where the soil is warm and dry, but can be grown in slightly cooler areas as well (5).
3. Siberian ginseng: Also called Eleuthero root from its scientific name: Eleutherococcus senticosus. It is traditionally used to prevent colds and the flu, as well as increase energy and vitality. It helps you better utilize stored carbohydrates, fat, and lactic acid to provide energy for cells. By utilizing the lactic acid you can avoid that buildup in the muscle, which causes the annoying heavy feeling in your legs! (6) The plant is grown widely in Asia, where the climate is semi-arid. The most medicinally potent part of the plant is the center of the root.
4. Panax ginseng: Also called Asian, Chinese, or Korean ginseng, it is highly effective in cases of chronic stress (i.e. marathon training). Traditionally used for cardiovascular support and mental vitality, Panax ginseng increases mitochondria levels in the muscle in order to fight fatigue (7). Asian Ginseng is one of the most valuable plants in the world, and for that reason buying from responsible sources is imperative. Want to try growing at home? You need neutral soil, rain, cool temperatures, and patience--it takes at least 5 years to grow a harvestable root!
5. Licorice Root: While it is very important as endurance runners to support the adrenals, utilize energy sources, and prevent muscle damage, it is also really important to prevent the oxidation of cells and prevent gastrointestinal discomfort (8). In a study published in the International Journal of Pharmaceutics, licorice reduced the instance of gastric lesions due to ibuprofen administration (9). While we can choose take ibuprofen for pain (although we should do so very rarely as it has been shown to cause ulcers), we don’t necessarily have control over getting leaky gut due to overtraining, which is why preventing it, is important. Licorice comes in 2 forms: deglycyrrhized licorice (DGL) or licorice root. I recommend DGL as the glycyrrhizin is more likely to cause side effects and has been shown to have estrogen-mimicking effects in women (8).
How to take adaptogens
When starting an adaptogen routine, consult your doctor or herbalist first and try one for a couple weeks, before introducing another one. Some herbs are drying, like Rhodiola, so if you are currently battling dry skin it might not be the best for you at this time. Always take a day off from adaptogens during the week to increase the efficacy of the herbs and to give your body a chance to calibrate its stress on its own. If you decide to take adaptogens for several months in a row, be sure to take a couple weeks off! Remember, results are not immediate—you can expect to see changes in performance and recovery within a month.
https://rua.ua.es/dspace/bitstream/10045/34901/1/jhse_Vol_8_N_IV_1054-1066.pdf : Effects of adaptogen supplementation on sport performance. A recent review of published studies