6 Herbs for Athletes: Before, During and After a Workout*

Awhile back, we shared 8 Ways Exercise Supports Your Health and Well-Being. Today we’re talking about exercise again. We’ll start by looking at what exercise does to your body, the natural recovery process that accompanies it and the herbs — and foods — that can support you before, during and after a workout.*

When you exercise, the occasional soreness you feel is localized muscle damage and tiny tears, and that’s completely normal.* This experience is called DOMS, or delayed-onset muscle soreness, and it happens when the muscles must lengthen while force is applied (e.g., lifting weights, jumping rope or running). In order to build more muscle, your body has to respond and repair that tissue.* You build strength and get bigger muscles as the body fills in those tiny tears. However, if you’re not fueling your body properly or you’re not taking the time necessary to rest, you may impact your body’s natural recovery processes.*

Let’s start by looking at food, aka fuel.

What to Eat Before a Workout

6 Herbs for AthletesAbout 30–60 minutes before you work out, eat a snack that’s rich in carbohydrates, as that’s what your body will use to fuel you through your exercise. Some protein is fine, but you’ll want to avoid large amounts of fiber and fat, both of which take more time and effort to digest and can interfere with your workout. You’ll especially want a quick bite before morning exercise, since your body has been fasting all night and your liver glycogen stores are low. Some easy preworkout snacks include a piece of fruit or a small handful of dried fruit, a small bowl of oatmeal or a slice of toast with jam. Keep it simple so your body can access that energy in time for your workout.

What to Eat After a Workout

After exercise, don’t wait to eat. You’ll want to refuel within 30–45 minutes with a combination of complex carbohydrates and protein. Carbs provide the glucose that you need to replenish your muscles’ glycogen reserves, while the amino acids in protein are necessary to rebuild your muscle tissue. Carbs also will help you feel more energized after your workout.

Eating in a timely manner helps support a healthy inflammatory response as well as healthy levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Wait too long to eat, and your body could slow your metabolism and shift into a catabolic state, which can lead to muscle breakdown instead of building. (This is the body’s natural reaction to lack of food.) While your needs will vary based on your activity, fitness levels and body type, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends consuming 3–5 g of carbs per pound of body weight daily for athletes. For a 150-pound person, that’s 450–750 g per day. This amount will help you maintain healthy blood glucose levels during a workout and replace muscle glycogen after.(1)

We can store about 500 g (2,000 calories) in muscles and only about 100 g (400 calories) in our liver. (Anything in excess is converted to fat for long-term storage.) The glycogen in our muscles is reconverted into glucose, providing the fuel for your workouts; what’s in our livers is used to maintain our blood glucose levels.

What to Drink

Glass of water
Photo by curiouspixels | CC by 2.0

Beyond food, the body needs to maintain proper hydration levels for both performance and recovery. The general rule for hydration is to consume half your body weight in ounces per day. That is, if you weigh 150 pounds, you’ll need to consume 75 ounces of water daily.

You’ll need another 16–20 ounces an hour before working out, and 32 ounces for every hour you exercise (or 8 ounces every 15 minutes). If you’re working out for an hour or more, you’ll also want to replenish electrolytes, which help maintain fluid balance and muscle function.

Before exercise:

Beet juice

Beet juice has been shown to support stamina in endurance athletes, with participants in studies consuming 500 ml (about 17 ounces) a few hours before an event.* This ruby red beverage has been shown to support oxygen uptake during physical activity. Beet juice promotes the efficiency of individual mitochondria, which in turn promotes blood and oxygen flow to muscles.* Beet juice is packed with antioxidants, and the nitrates in beets naturally dilate arteries, which supports healthy blood flow.* Bacteria in the mouth converts nitrate to nitrite, which in the gut becomes nitric oxide, supporting the widening of blood vessels. More oxygen-rich blood pumping more easily through our bodies means we’ll be able to work out longer and harder.

Orange juice

The natural sugars in orange juice provide fuel for a workout, along with potassium, a mineral that supports healthy blood pressure. The vitamin C in orange juice has been shown to support overall heart health and healthy blood vessel flow, as well as a healthy stress response by nourishing the adrenals. Like Turmeric, vitamin C can also help promote a healthy inflammatory response.* Fresh-squeezed orange juice can have a milder taste and is quite refreshing before a workout, perhaps with a bit of Black Elderberry Syrup drizzled in.

During exercise:

Grape juice

Grape juice is a source of quick-burning carbs during exercise, as well as antioxidant support.* In a study, grape juice was also shown to support stamina and endurance.* It is delicious as the basis for a homemade sports drink. 

After exercise:

Tart cherry juice

In one study, athletes consumed tart cherries before and after an endurance event.* Researchers found that the cherries supported a healthy immune and inflammatory response as well as other performance indicators.* Athletes not only performed better, but they also recovered faster, too. Tart cherry juice pairs well with the MacaBoost Cacao Ginger powder.

Pineapple juice

This tropical fruit contains an enzyme called bromelain that has been used to support the muscles after exercise and promote a healthy inflammatory response.* It’s delicious mixed with TurmericBoost Uplift and coconut milk after a workout.

6 Herbs for Athletes to Support Performance and Recovery from Workouts

There are several herbs that can help support your mind and body before, during and after your workouts.* Here are six of them:

Turmeric

TurmericTurmeric (Curcuma longa) promotes healthy joint function and mobility by supporting the body’s inflammatory response, and its antioxidant action can help support the body after a workout.* Turmeric has been used to support the body’s response to occasional pain and promote normal inflammatory function — such as after pushing your body during exercise.*

One of the active components in Turmeric, called curcumins, provide the bright yellow color of the root as well as providing antioxidant support.* These compounds can promote healthy inflammatory responses and help maintain overall health and vitality.* Curcumins have been shown to support production of proteins that help naturally regulate immune cell function, which is good to know during the training season.*

One of our favorite ways to add Turmeric to our day is with TurmericBoost. (Find out the differences between cooking with Turmeric and taking it as a supplement.)  

Boswellia

BosweliaThe resin of the Boswellia serrata trees is a common and valued herb in Ayurveda. Also known as Indian Frankincense, Boswellia has traditionally been used to support a healthy response to occasional pain and to promote a healthy inflammatory response by naturally inhibiting certain enzymes.* It also supports healthy, comfortable joints and promotes healthy blood flow to the body’s connective tissue. In addition, Boswellia’s support for a healthy inflammatory response also supports gut health — an aspect of health you may know all too well during long runs and strenuous workouts — by nourishing the mucosal lining of the GI tract.*

 Boswellia’s active constituents support apoptosis, which is end of the normal cell life cycle while promoting healthy tissue growth.*According to research, Boswellia appears to work synergistically with the Curcumins in Turmeric, which is why Gaia Herbs combines these herbs in Turmeric Supreme Joint.* This sticky dried resin isn’t usually consumed in food or drink on its own, but it’s blended in with delicious Vanilla-chai spices and Turmeric in TurmericBoost Sport.

Who might like it: Runners and others who participate in high-impact activities.*

Green Tea

Green TeaGreen Tea (Camellia sinensis) has been consumed for thousands of years and Green Tea has been shown to encourage the healthy metabolism of sugars, aka carbs, which provide the fuel for your workouts.* It also offers the body antioxidant support, and it has been studied to support metabolic and cardiovascular health.* Studies have also shown that when combined with additional caffeine, Green Tea can support endurance.* Green Tea has also been shown to have a slightly anabolic (muscle-building) effect in those who lift weights regularly, as well as in older adults, who naturally begin to lose muscle mass as they age.* After exercise, this refreshing combo is quite tasty: 1 dropperful (It’s extra-tasty with fizzy lemonade.)

Who might like it: Those who lift weights, and anyone who’s trying to maintain muscle mass.*

American Ginseng  

American GinsengThe genus name for American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) comes from the word panacea, and the word Ginseng means “wonder of the world.” Long used by the Native American populations of North America, American Ginseng is said to be energetically cooler than the Asian counterpart, and in traditional Chinese medicine it was used as a yin tonic.* It takes at least seven years for the root to mature, and often much longer! (That’s why it’s important to choose only sustainably harvested American Ginseng. It’s on the at-risk list, so choose your source carefully!)  

The Eclectics of the 19th century used it as a tonifying herb for the nervous system, and it was used to support digestion, too.* Modern herbalists classify American Ginseng as an adaptogen, and it supports the HPA axis.(2) In addition, American Ginseng supports oxygen uptake and healthy metabolism of lactic acid, which is important to athletes.* It promotes balance in the neuroendocrine system as well as cognitive performance, including support for reaction time.*

Along with Eleuthero, American Ginseng can be taken before exercise to support stamina and endurance. Add it to water, or mix into Ginger tea as those flavors mingle well.

Who might like it: Endurance athletes — like long-distance runners or road cyclists.*

Eleuthero

EleutheroEleuthero root (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is an herb that comes from Siberia, where it has traditionally been used as an adaptogen — long before the term even existed. It was one of the first herbs to be studied and classified as an adaptogen, too. Eleuthero helps support healthy blood sugar levels already within normal ranges.* In addition, it can support optimal use of glycogen and the high-energy phosphorus compounds ADP and ATP (aka what provides energy for cellular processes). Eleuthero also has been shown to promote metabolism of lactic and pyruvic acids to promote energy production.* Lactic acid buildup is what causes that heavy, sore feeling in muscles after a workout, and it is natural caused by an excess of pyruvic acid, which is a byproduct of the breakdown of glucose.  

This herb also helps vitamin C and magnesium reach the adrenal glands, which then use those vital micronutrients to adapt to stress.* Ginseng Supreme, with American Ginseng and Eleuthero Root, can easily be added to a sports drink for an additional pick-me-up.*

Who might like it: Those who have a race fast-approaching.*

Maca

blog_maca-mens-healthMaca root (Lepidium meyenii) has been used as a caffeine-free, plant-based performance enhancer since the days of the Inca warriors.* A knobby root that resembles a turnip, Maca hails from the high Andes mountains of Peru, an extreme environment where this plant uniquely thrives.*

While Maca is able to grow in locales other than Peru, we prefer to source it from where we know it has been successfully cultivated for thousands of years—in an environment that’s as unique as the herb itself. (You want to be sure that the Maca you choose is the real deal, aka pure and free of adulterants.)

The two best-known traditional uses of Maca are support of healthy energy and stamina, as well as support for a healthy libido in both men and women.* Maca is an adaptogen, meaning it supports your ability to manage stress.* Adaptogens help you “adapt” to whatever life brings.*

Our plant-based performance enhancers —  MacaBoost Cacao Ginger, with Rhodiola to naturally support endurance and recovery, and MacaBoost Vanilla Chai, with Holy Basil to help you focus and deal with daily stress — are delicious in a post-workout smoothie or shake.*

Since it dissolves easily and has a pleasant taste, Maca can quickly be added to your favorite foods. Mix it into your favorite smoothie, homemade energy bites and more. Maca Powder and a pinch of sea salt on dates is perfect fuel during long runs.

Who might like it: Runners or calories looking for a natural way to provide energy during a long workout.*

 Are you an athlete? How do you fuel your body before, during and after a workout or event? Share your stories with us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram!


Selected sources:
(1) Muth, Natalie Digate, M.D., M.P.H., R.D. ACE Fitness Nutrition Manual. “Nutrition for Special Populations.” 2013.
(2) Winston, David and Steven Maines. Adaptogens. 2007.