Can Mushrooms (and Other Non-Supplements) Make You a Better Runner?
When looking for innovative ways to improve sports performance, a lot of folks think the first place they should turn to is the supplement store. Actual food is old news, the best way to become a better athlete is with the latest, cutting edge supplements, isn’t it?
Well, not quite.
Today, the landscape of the supplement industry is chaotic. It’s awash with products and marketing claims that give a distorted picture of the science. Here’s a great example: for years and years, athletes were told that sipping branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) will boost endurance and muscle gain. (BCAAs refer to the amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine.)
The problem? It’s probably a placebo effect. Several studies published in 2017 showed that these fancy supplements — which, by the way, are usually made from duck feathers — are significantly less effective at spurring muscle growth than simply eating a healthy diet. If you’re eating food (i.e. enough protein from any source), you don’t need them.
The same can be said for many other supplements: usually, natural foods are all you need for optimal performance. Don’t get us wrong, some of those lab-created compounds can have merit, but the following supplements are made from natural, whole foods and can have a profound effect on your athletic performance, particularly with regards to endurance.
Heres how you can take your performance to the next level.
This mushroom that has a pretty crazy origin story: it's an endoparasitoid, meaning that it grows as a parasite — typically on insects. There are hundreds of species of cordyceps all over the world, but most of them can be found in Asia, where they’ve been used in traditional medicine for hundreds of years.
It’s been linked to everything from a lower diabetes risk to better liver health, but it also has some real promise as a workout supplement.
“It does seem to have positive effects on steroid hormone synthesis and antioxidant capacity, at least in animal studies,” says Trevor Kashey, a nutrition consultant who holds a PhD in biochemistry. That means it can have a beneficial effect on your testosterone levels. “For men and women if testosterone goes up, their concentration tends to go up, and so does overall vitality, work efficiency, and attention span.”
Multiple animal studies support the idea that cordyceps — particularly the species cordyceps militaris, which grows out of young caterpillars — can help increase the amount of time it takes to reach fatigue during exercise.
“It may increase your lactate threshold, which is basically the amount of energy you can put into exercise before you swap to anaerobic metabolism,” says Kashey. “Basically, you can have higher intensity low intensity work, meaning you might be able to push harder during long runs without having negative effects on your endurance.”
Most human evidence is anecdotal, but extremely promising. Regularly taking one to three grams of cordyceps per day seems to be the most effective way of supplementing.
Beet root juice
Beets contain more sugar than most vegetables, but they also contain a lot more nitrate as well. Nitrate is an ion that's present in a variety of fruits and vegetables (particularly greens), but it’s highly concentrated in beet root juice.
“Nitrate can get converted to nitric oxide, and that nitric oxide changes your smooth muscle function,” says Kashey. “That means it changes your vascular system and can alter your blood pressure in a positive way.”
But the kicker is that these nitrates increase the efficiency of your mitochondria — the “powerhouses” of your cells — so that you don’t waste as much oxygen. Or in Kashey’s words, “You get more out of the oxygen you breathe in.”
Sometimes called Arctic root or golden root, Rhodiola has been traditionally used in both Scandinavian and Chinese medicine as an adaptogen. That means that it can help the body to adapt to stressful situations, and it’s worth emphasizing that exercise counts as stress.
“Exercise and stress are one and the same to me,” says Kashey. “Rhodiola decreases your perceived stress in either situation, so if you have a stressful meeting it helps you endure that and not feel the effects, and the same goes for a long run: you may have fewer mental blocks and be able to push yourself harder.”
It’s often considered as a supplement for reducing fatigue, but it’s referring to a specific type of fatigue that you feel when you’re stressed — whether that’s from a punishing workout or from making too many high pressure decisions at the office.
The word “ginseng” might bring to mind brightly colored, highly caffeinated energy drinks — many of them tend to throw it in and imply it’s a stimulant.
It does have some links with energy production, but the real magic happens when you look at ginseng’s potential as an immune booster.
“In terms of sports performance, immune boosters are extremely underrated,” says Kashey. “When you’re sick for a week, you can’t do shit. It’s an indirect benefit, but it’s absolutely worth bringing up.”
It appears that it helps to stimulate T-cells, which are very important for immunity. It also seems to help reduce the physical effects of stress, which also helps your immunity — you may be aware that it’s much easier to fall ill when you’re stressed out.
“There are active ingredients in ginseng that inhibit enzymes that synthesize stress hormones,” Kashey explains. “Plus it also has a positive effect on glucose metabolism, which probably has an impact on mood.”
This root has a long history of being used in Ayurvedic medicine, a traditional system of healing with historical roots in the Indian subcontinent.
“There are adaptogen-like qualities associated with it, and it decreases cortisol and increases your pulse,” says Kashey. This can be a good thing for folks looking for an increase in performance, however, since an increase in pulse rate can mean better force of contraction in cardiac muscles.
“It also alters oxygen consumption, which may have a positive effect on performance — in this case aerobic exercise,” Kashey continues. “You’ll be hard pressed to find any supplement that improves strength because that’s almost all nervous system stuff. But it does have an effect on cardiovascular endurance.”
In a 2012 study, an eight-week course of supplementing Ashwagandha in cyclists found that 500 milligrams of the stuff per day resulted in a significant increase aerobic capacity and total time for the athlete to reach exhaustion. There’s even some evidence that it can improve focus and reduce stress, though Kashey cautions that it’s best to read this as an ability to bring you back to baseline if you’re so stressed you’re having trouble focusing, as opposed to “supercharging” your focus.
While it’s tempting to think that the secret to human performance can be found in a lab, some of the best ways to boost your endurance and performance have already been formulated by Mother Nature herself.