Intake: An Herbal Handbook for the Training Table

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1995

Intake: An Herbal Handbook for the Training Table
By Sara Corbett

For those who dismiss herbal supplements as the stuff of Mia Farrow's disappearing acts in Alice, there's a small body of recent research showing that the athletic benefits of herbs like ginkgo and Gotu kola are hardly hokum. The studies show that certain herbs can repair damaged muscle tissue, purge exercise-induced toxins, increase oxygen uptake, and reduce joint inflammation. As for bolder claims that some herbs boost stamina and overall health, the jury's still out. But with or without the endorsement of science, athletes are increasingly working herbs into their diets.

"More and more athletes are getting beyond their odd fear of herbs and learning how to use them for performance and recovery," says former professional triathlete Colleen Cannon, who has taken ginkgo as well as Siberian and American ginseng regularly for the last nine years and says she's healthier--and faster--as a result. A number of prominent sports nutritionists, however, question the research that's been done, particularly since much of it takes place outside the United States. "As far as I'm concerned, it hasn't been proven that herbs help athletic performance," says Kristine Clark, director of sports nutrition at Penn State. "Or we'd all be popping them."

There's also the worry that, because herbs have enticingly natural-sounding names, people will abandon the cautious measures they apply to other medications. Herbs shouldn't be taken as lightly as a shot of wheatgrass juice or a sprinkling of bran. Not only are herbal products priced like drugs, but your body recognizes them as such; some will even make a drug test come up positive. "Read up on how to use them, buy your herbs from a well-respected company, and heed the recommended dosage and any warnings on the label," advises Rob McCaleb, president of the Herb Research Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization in Boulder, Colorado.

Here's a whole-foods grocery browser's guide to some of the more common herbs used by athletes.

(Arnica montana) Usually sold in ointment or oil form, arnica works topically on bruises, sprains, strains, and other soft-tissue injuries. It's a reputable herb among athletes, although the evidence in its favor is mostly anecdotal.
Dosage: A liberal application to injured area
Cost: $6.50 for a one-ounce jar of ointment

(Ginkgo biloba) One of the better-researched herbs on the market, the leaf of the ginkgo tree has been shown to improve blood flow, clearing out fats and inhibiting the production of free radicals, which is said to counteract cellular damage due to stress and aging. Ginkgo also stimulates the uptake of cellular glucose, helping the body to use its energy more efficiently.
Dosage: One 40-milligram capsule three times daily
Cost: $15 for 30 capsules

(Centella asiatica) A popular snack among the sage elephants of Sri Lanka, the leaves of this creeping plant are fabled to bring about wisdom and longevity. In humans, Gotu kola appears to reduce painful lactic-acid buildup in the muscles. It's also been demonstrated to work as an anti-inflammatory.
Dosage: Two 435-milligram capsules twice daily
Cost: $7 for 100 capsules

(Silybum marianum) Grown in California and the eastern United States, milk thistle contains an antioxidant called silymarin. The herb has been proved effective in stimulating protein synthesis, crucial to recovery from long endurance efforts.
Dosage: One 175-milligram capsule three times daily
Cost: $15 for 60 capsules

(Elutherococcus senticosus) The popular name is a misnomer, since this herb comes from a different plant than its true ginseng-root counterparts (American, Chinese, and Korean ginseng). Believed by many Russian athletes and cosmonauts to be something of a wonder drug, Siberian ginseng is said to improve oxygen uptake, stamina, coordination, and concentration and to help the body adjust to changes in temperature or altitude.
Dosage: One 500-milligram capsule once or twice daily
Cost: $7 for 100 capsules

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