The Herbal Guide to Workout & Recovery
When you exercise, the occasional soreness is the body’s reaction to normal localised muscle damage and tiny tears. This experience is called DOMS, or delayed-onset muscle soreness, and it happens when the muscles must lengthen while force is applied, such as during weight listing or running. In order to build more muscle and adapt, the body has to repair that tissue. We build strength and muscles as the body fills in those tiny tears. However, when we’re not fueling properly or the time necessary to rest, the body's natural recovery processes and consequently our performance is compromised. We can support this recovery process through rest, proper fuel pre- and post-workout, and natural anti-inflammatory remedies.
Pre-Workout Fuel & Remedies
About 30-60 minutes before you exercise, especially high intensity one like running, a snack that's rich in unrefined carbohydrates can provide the most optimal fuel. Some additional protein is alright, but try to avoid large amounts of fiber and fat, since they can interfere with your performance by requiring more time and effort to digest. A small snack before a morning exercise is especially helpful in protecting your liver since its glycogen stores are low due to fasting during sleep. Try a small piece of fruit, dried fruit, or an easy smoothie.
Some people claim that a fasted workout, specifically cardio, is the better because the body would depend on fat rather than the aforementioned carbohydrates but research is very limited on this. This supposedly would be because glycogen levels would be low, pushing the body to use fat instead. You can see all the research articles I reviewed in reference at the end of this article. However, if you personally feel better without food, always listen to your own body.
Other ways to support your body and mind before a workout can include herbs. I personally have found Eleuthero root (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and Ashwagandha to be two helpful pre-workout supportive plants. Because Eleuthero was one of the first plants to be considered an adaptogen, thanks to its long history of usage with Soviet soldiers, it comes with significant amount of research regarding its use. It has been studied in terms of its effects on both athletic endurance and recovery in terms of flushing excess water retention out of the body. Running long miles as I do, or other high intensity workouts, can lead to water retention in order to repair muscle tears that naturally result from exercise. Summer heat exponentially worsens that, so using gentle yet effective plant remedies like Eleuthero has made an immense difference for me. In the decade plus that I’ve run, I had not found any other supplement that provided the same relief so I can comfortably go through my week’s runs.
Ashwagandha has been helpful to combat a different issue for me, which is sufficient energy to run at 6 a.m. and the morning anxiety I experience even during my runs thinking about my day ahead. Taking Ashwagandha had provided me with a quiet source of energy.
Post-Workout Fuel & Remedies
After exercise, don't wait beyond 45 minutes to eat, and ideally do so with a combination of complex carbohydrates and protein. Carbohydrates are the first macronutrients to be absorbed by our system, giving the necessary energy in the form of glucose to replenish your muscles' now-depleted glycogen reserves. The amino acids in protein are also necessary to rebuild your muscle tissue.
Timing is critical post-workout to support glucose metabolism with the liver and regulate inflammation by keeping cortisol levels in check. Fueling quickly also protects the integrity of the colon’s lining as when we are left too hungry, acid can escape the stomach and erode the tissues. On the other hand, waiting too long to eat can slow your metabolism down to conserve energy and shift into a catabolic state as a result, which can lead to muscle breakdown rather than building. In general, this reaction is the general trajectory to lack of food.
Although recommendations vary according to boy type and activity, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests aiming for 3 to 5 g of carbohydrates per pound of body weight daily. So, for a 150-pound person, that would be 450 to 750 grams of carbohydrates per day. Certainly, please keep in mind the variation of these needs if you’re diabetic, have diagnose blood sugar issues otherwise, or if you’re recovering from an eating disorder. The glycogen stored in our muscles is then reconverted into glucose, providing further fuel for our day and future workouts. The glycogen stored in the liver is used to maintain our blood glucose levels.
It should go without saying, but I’ll remind again that proper hydration levels are critical for both performance and recovery. The general rule for hydration is to consume half your body weight in ounces per day. That is, a 150-pound person would need to consume 75 ounces of water daily.
An hour before a workout, try to consume 16-20 ounces of water and 32 ounces for every hour you exercise, which is also 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. I love these quick tablets. You will have to increase your water intake in hotter weather, especially if you’ve excessively sweat.
Post-workout, I hydrate in two ways: water with added tinctures for lymphatic drainage support to remove excess fluids and through herbal infusions. During the day, I fill a large pitcher of water with two dropperfuls of this Dandelion tincture, which also helps with fluid balance.
Beet juice has also been shown to support stamina in endurance athletes along with supporting oxygen uptake. This is because beet juice promotes the efficiency of individual mitochondria, which in turn promotes blood and oxygen flow to muscles. The nitrates in beets naturally dilate arteries, increasing blood flow as the bacteria in the mouth convert nitrate to nitrite, which in the gut becomes nitric oxide that widens blood vessels. As a result of the increase in oxygen, the body can work out longer and harder.
Eleuthero root is also supportive post-workout. Eleuthero helps to support healthy blood sugar levels (already within normal ranges and not compromised by glucose-related dysfunction), helping the afore-mentioned glucose instability that results post-workout. This is because eleuthero promotes optimal use of glycogen and the high-energy phosphorus compounds ADP and ATP, which are the energy blocks for cellular processes. Eleuthero has also been shown to promote metabolism of lactic and pyruvic acids for energy production, which is essential since lactic acid can build up and cause that heavy, sore feeling in muscles after a workout.
Tart cherry juice
According to one study, athletes who consumed tart cherries before and after an endurance event had a healthier immune and inflammatory response as well as other performance indicators. As a result, they not only performed better, but they also recovered faster, too.
Bromelain & Pineapple juice
Pineapples contain an enzyme called bromelain that can support muscle recovery after exercise and promote a healthy inflammatory response. You can either eat fresh pineapples, mix some of its juice in a smoothie or even water, or take a bromelain supplement.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) might be the clichéd addition to a list of an anti-inflammatory protocol, but alas! It promotes healthy joint function; mobility by supporting the body's inflammatory response; and its antioxidant action aids in recovery.
One of turmeric’s main active components, called curcumins, that gives its vibrant yellow colour is also indicative of its antioxidant support. Curcumins have been shown to support production of proteins that help naturally regulate immune cell function. One of our favorite ways of incorporating Turmeric is with either this simple yet potent tincture, this pain-related one, or this one that is further geared towards the aforementioned Adrenal function. We also love cooking with our only source of fair-trade turmeric powder: Diaspora Co.
The resin of the Boswellia serrata trees or Indian Frankincense is a highly-valued herb in Ayurvedic Medicine in treating pain and promoting a healthy inflammatory response by naturally inhibiting certain enzymes. It also supports healthy, comfortable joint function and healthy blood flow to the body's connective tissue, making it a great herbal supplement for high-impact athletes like runners. Boswellia also is nourishing to digestive tissue by strengthening the mucosal lining of the gastrointestinal tract. We love this blend that incorporates Boswellia.
As a long-time runner who has had her fair share of injuries as well as the previously-mentioned issue of the inevitable water retention, I cannot speak more highly of arnica. Not only is it an odourless and gentle pain reliever, but it also regulates the inflammatory response that is generated by the muscle tears, lactic acid buildup, and cortisol increase from exercise. This is a great oil for external application and this tincture aids in recovery that is especially impacted by injury or intense training sessions.
About the Author
Almila Kakinc-Dodd is the Founder, Editor-in-Chief of The Thirlby. She is also the author of the book The Thirlby: A Field Guide to a Vibrant Mind, Body, & Soul. She is currently pursuing her Master’s in Nursing as a Dean’s Scholar at Johns Hopkins University. Her background is in Anthropology & Literature, which she has further enriched through her Integrative Health Practitioner training at Duke University. She lives in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area, where she regularly contributes to various publications. She is a member of Democratic Socialists of America and urges others to join the movement.