Ashwagandha might be an herb you have never heard of, but it is time that you hear about it! I became interested in using Ashwagandha for its various medicinal properties, namely the evidence-based beneficial effects of this compound on stress and mood. To my surprise however, as I started diving into a bit of the research surrounding the health benefits of Ashwagandha, I started to notice that it had also been studied as a potential performance-enhancing substance for athletes.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnivera) is a popular herb used in Ayurvedic medicine due to its wide-ranging biological actions influencing health (Mishra et al., 2000). It is known as an “adaptogen”, which is considered any nontoxic substance, especially plant extracts, that is known to increase the body’s ability to resist the damaging effects of stress and promote or restore bodily homeostasis. Many different plants are considered to have adaptogenic properties, including things such as various strains of mushrooms and other fungi. Ashwagandha is one of the more popular adaptogenic herbs that is both used in practice and studied in the scientific literature. However, it has only been recently studied for its possible beneficial effects on athletic performance. The findings of this research might just surprise you as it surprised me, namely because I would not have expected an herb to have the effects that have been documented in recent scientific literature. So, without further ado, let’s dive into that research!
Ashwagandha and Endurance Performance
A recent 2020 systematic review and meta-analysis (Pérez-Gómez et al., 2020) aimed to summarize the effects of ashwagandha supplementation on VO2 Max in healthy adults and athletes. This study ultimately included five studies with 162 total participants ranging in age from 16-45 years of age. Study participants were a mix of healthy adults, various recreational athletes, and elite cyclists. So, this review and meta-analysis included quite a diverse population despite a relatively small total sample size. Researchers found that the studies included in this review utilized 500-1000 mg of Ashwagandha daily for 2-12 weeks. The meta-analysis found a significant beneficial effect of Ashwagandha compared to placebo control in the order of 3.0 ml/kg/min. This essentially means that taking Ashwagandha favored a 3.0 ml/kg/min improvement in VO2 Max at study treatment end. For anyone that knows anything about VO2 Max, this is a rather significant real-world difference in VO2 Max. Athletes will spend months or years trying to increase their VO2 Max by a few points, so to have Ashwagandha consumption for a few weeks to a few months lead to a favorable impact on VO2 Max in the order of 3.0 points higher than a placebo control group is very exciting. This meta-analysis, however, had some limitations, including the small sample size and the relatively poor overall quality of evidence as calculated by the authors when conducting the meta-analysis. Therefore, these results should be interpreted with caution.
Another more recent 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis (Bonilla et al., 2021) aimed to assess the effects of Ashwagandha on physical performance, including VO2 Max and blood hemoglobin concentration (Hb) in healthy individuals. This review/meta-analysis included 12 studies and over 600 healthy adults. Sub-group meta-analysis for VO2 Max demonstrated a significant and very large effect of Ashwagandha compared to placebo control (d = 1.929; p < 0.001). A separate sub-group meta-analysis for Hb also revealed a significant and very large effect of Ashwagandha compared to placebo control (d = 1.697; p < 0.001). This particular meta-analysis had a much higher quality of evidence than the previously discussed 2020 review/meta-analysis, and so the findings of this paper can be interpreted with greater confidence. This is great, as the treatment effect of Ashwagandha on VO2 Max and Hb were significant and very large compared to the placebo control!
So, what do we make of all this? It seems, based on the two systematic reviews and meta-analyses discussed above, that Ashwagandha has a significant and large treatment effect on endurance performance markers, specifically VO2 Max and Hb. VO2 Max is an important marker/characteristic of endurance performance, and so a higher VO2 Max due to the addition of Ashwagandha is potentially significant in real-world competition. A greater blood hemoglobin concentration is also potentially significant in real-world competition for endurance athletes as greater Hb is related to a greater oxygen-carrying capacity, which can improve endurance performance. It is important to point out that there have not been any studies that have really investigated the impact of Ashwagandha on real-world performance in a race or time trial. So, the above findings should not be interpreted to say that Ashwagandha improves endurance performance, per se, as that research has not been done. However, Ashwagandha does seem to have beneficial effects on markers of endurance performance, and so it is theoretically possible that these improved endurance characteristics could ultimately lead to better real-world performance in a race or competition.
Ashwagandha also tends to be a relatively affordable supplement, with a high-quality Ashwagandha supplement from Gaia Herbs being only ~$24 on Amazon.com (at the time this was written and published in early 2022). Research tends to suggest a beneficial effect of Ashwagandha when taken regularly at doses of 500-1000 mg, and this Gaia Herbs supplement would last an athlete 60 days when taken at that dosage range. This is only ~$12/month for a potentially ergogenic, and completely legal for competition, substance. This makes it a potentially attractive option for athletes. And the added benefit is that Ashwagandha has evidence supporting general health benefits, including beneficial effects on stress. Athletes are constantly under stress from training, and so managing stress and recovery from said stress through sleep, nutrition, and possibly supplementation can help an athlete perform at their best. Ashwagandha seems to help improve not only performance, but also counteract and manage stress at a relatively low cost.
Ashwagandha is also safe when taken orally in doses of up to 1000 mg/day, with minimal risk of side effects (mild sedative effect can be seen in some individuals; Examine, 2022). However, it is typically recommended to take Ashwagandha for no more than 3 months at a time as the body can develop a tolerance to it and the beneficial effects can decrease long-term (Examine, 2022). Therefore, a sensible approach for supplementing with Ashwagandha could be to take 500-1000 mg/day for 2-3 months with a 1-2 month “wash-out” period before cycling back on the supplement again.
As with any supplement, it is a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional to make sure there are no contraindications to you taking Ashwagandha. Despite it being a very safe supplement with little risk of any adverse side effects, it can react with certain medications, and so if you are taking any medications for your health, it is worthwhile checking with your doctor before starting any supplement. And finally, as with any supplement, it is always more important to optimize your diet first before relying on supplements. Although Ashwagandha is not normally found in foods consumed within a nutritious diet, a good diet is always the place to start when looking to maximize adaptations to and recovery from endurance training. So, start with your diet and then consider supplementing with various evidence-based supplements if you have the budget and willingness to do so.
Bonilla DA, Moreno Y, Gho C, Petro JL, Odriozola-Martínez A, Kreider RB. Effects of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) on Physical Performance: Systematic Review and Bayesian Meta-Analysis. Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology. 2021 Mar;6(1):20.
Mishra, L.C.; Singh, B.B.; Dagenais, S. Scientific basis for the therapeutic use of Withania somnifera (ashwagandha): A review. Altern. Med. Rev. 2000, 5, 334–346.
Pérez-Gómez J, Villafaina S, Adsuar JC, Merellano-Navarro E, Collado-Mateo D. Effects of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) on VO2max: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrients. 2020 Apr;12(4):1119.
Happy training and racing!
-Ryan Eckert, MS, CSCS
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