Herbal Supplements to Increase Cardio? That’s Flower Power!

OK guys, so it’s been real busy down here keeping Austin fit and beautiful so I haven’t posted like I’ve wanted too but I’ve finally gotten around to writing this piece of work. I was approached by a friend of mine wondering about supplements to help increase cardio performance. In particular, herbal supplements. So I decided to take a quick look at a few of the most popular herbal supplements on the market today.
My personal take on supplements is this; supplement by definition is something that helps you perform is conjunction with what you’re already doing. So with the right nutritional habits and the right type of exercise for your goals, supplements can help you achieve those goals. I personally take some: a sport multi-vitamin, Creatine monohydrate, BCAA’s and protein (just casen protein). Do I believe that all supplements work? Not even fucking close. There are some God awful supps out there that are marketing schemes that most people who have no idea what they‘re doing buy into. This is why I’m passionate about it and got into exercise science, to help guide people in the right direction. And to tell you the truth, I was that guy who would buy $200 worth of supps at GNC and be so hyped but I’ve since learned the error of my ways.
Also supplementing is training level dependent. Meaning you’ll see more of an effect with people who are either: not trained, just started (<6 months) or do minimal exercise (1-3 d/wk). For us highly trained athletes, it’s harder for us to see a benefit. It’s because our bodies are already performing at a high level. It’s like adding an additive to race car fuel; as long as that F1 car has fuel, regardless of what else is in that fuel, that fucker is going to fly.


Ok as we both know, herbal supplements are quite popular. Herbal dietary supplements are marketed to physically active individuals for a variety of reasons, including increasing energy, inducing weight loss, promoting muscle growth, or inducing other physiological or metabolic responses that may enhance exercise performance. However, in the world of exercise science, research concerning supplementing with herbals in relation to performance is still fairly unknown. This is cause of the over whelming focus of medical focus of research with herbs and the focus of obesity (this shit again? Yep….exercise science always gets out-ed by obesity research). With this being said, there is some promise with so herbs and there is now some research supporting ergonomic benefits.

This is red pepper extract (peppers as the cayenne, red, and chili). Popular amongst products like thermogenics (which I’m not a fan of…at all). United States Pharmacopeia has classified capsaicin as a stimulant. The effects are a lot like coffee; may induce sympathetic activation of the central nervous system, increasing catecholamine secretion and enhancing lipid (fat) oxidation, sparing the use of glycogen stores [1]. However, in a study done with long distance male runners 18-23 yr of age, results suggest that hot red pepper did the exact opposite, stimulates carbohydrate oxidation at rest and during exercise [2]. Additional research is needed to show any ergonomic effect of red pepper extract.

Ginkgo, being the world’s oldest extract dating back to the ancient Chinese, is believed to exert its mode of action when its active ingredients, the flavonoids and terpenoids. When working in concert, these ingredients have been shown to stimulate the release of endothelium-derived relaxing factor [3]. This would help in increasing blood to flow to muscle tissue which would provide an ergonomic effect during exercise. A meta-analysis [4] and several other studies [5,6] have shown that Ginkgo improves exercise performance, as evaluated by walking distance, in patients with peripheral arterial disease (PAD). Although supplementing with Ginkgo may improve exercise endurance in patients with PAD, there is no evidence that similar effects occur in healthy young or older athletes. But there is solid theory behind Ginkgo.

Rhodiola rosea
Also known as Golden Root, Rhodiola is a fairly new herb that just got its way into exercise performance. There is vast scientific evidence for beneficial effects on depression in humans using Rhodiola. It significantly reduced symptoms of fatigue and improved attention after four weeks of supplementation. While this has promise on being an athletic benefit, studies on whether Golden Root improves physical performance have been inconclusive, with some studies showing some benefit [7] while others show no significant difference [8].

This is by far the most popular herbal supplement in the industry to date. In the United States alone, sales have been reported to be over $300 million annually. There are many different forms of Ginseng: Panax, Eleutherococcus, or Ciwujia. Just know that these are all different forms of Ginseng, just from different regions. So check the product’s ingredient list and they may trick you. With all of the extensive research done with Ginseng, this is the Cliff Notes version of the theorized effects concerning performance: The ergogenic effect of ginseng is attributed to the ginsenosides, eleutherosides, and ciwujianosides. It’s theorized to influence the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal cortex axis. Given these theorized anti-stress effects, one theory of ginseng supplementation is to enhance sports performance by allowing athletes to train more intensely or to induce an anti-fatiguing effect and increase stamina during competition.
Early studies about Ginseng showed increased exercise performance. While most of these studies had major flaws such as improper design, no control or placebo, using older adults or no statistical analysis, this did show some promise. Several recent studies have reported ergogenic effects of Panax ginseng. One study reported that Panax Ginseng supplementation (1.35 g/day for 30 days) significantly increased cycle ergometer endurance time in untrained adults (emphasis on untrained for a reason) [9]. Also using untrained adults, others found that eight weeks supplementation with Panax ginseng extract (6 g/day) enhanced performance in treadmill running time was attributed to decreased oxidative stress [10]. However, this one-group study involved a control pre-test followed by a post-test after the eight-week supplementation period (no placebo was used).
Recent reviews of well-designed studies have concluded that there is an absence of compelling research evidence regarding the efficacy of ginseng use to improve physical performance in humans. The jury is still out on this one….

So I stumbled across this herb while doing research and it seems to have some promise. The ONLY study I found showed an improvement in running economy and maximal oxygen consumption after 4 weeks in twenty four men with a mean age of 25 [11]. So check it out for yourself.

Beetroot Juice
I know this isn’t an herb but I’m going to throw it in here. This nitrate rich food has said to have Nitric Oxide boosting effects along with improving athletic performance. And with a lot of talk (or hype) now a days about Beetroot juice, it’s no surprise it is beginning to catch the public eye. With such a huge push towards enhancing NO levels during exercise using supplements in the past decade, this has the best promise. The only problem here is again the limited research that has been done on Beetroot. While on study showed significant increases in different variables during a 10-km time-trial performance with trained cyclists over 6 days [12] another study showed no improvements in an endurance performance after a single dose of beetroot juice [13]. The funny thing was both of these studies were performed by the same people at the same lab, so they must be looking at some specific pathways of beetroot.

In conclusion, herbal supplements are just like any other product on the market today, some herbs show promise while others are still in limbo between what’s said and what’s done in the lab. And this is dependent on the fact that herbs are more “natural” then some other alternatives. This goes to show that the only way you can really increase your cardio performance is to…guess what…do cardio! Whether that is by steady state exercise, circuits, decreasing rest between sets to increase heart rate or whatever, it’s time to get up and do something.



1) Glickman-Weiss EL, et al.: Does capsaicin affect physiologic and thermal responses of males during immersion in 22 degrees C?
Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine 1998, 69:1095-1099.

2) Lim K, et al.: Dietary red pepper ingestion increases carbohydrate oxidation at rest and during exercise in runners.
Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 1997, 29:355-361.

3) Cott J: NCDEU update: Natural product formulations available in Europe for psychotropic indications.
Psychopharmacology Bulletin 1995, 31:745-51.

4) Schneider B: Ginkgo biloba extract in peripheral arterial diseases: Meta-analysis of controlled clinical studies.
Arzneimittelforschung 1992, 42:428-436.

5) Blume J, et al.: Placebo-controlled double-blind study of the effectiveness of Ginkgo biloba special extract EGb 761 in trained patients with intermittent claudication.
Vasa 1996, 25:265-274.

6) Peters H, Kieser M, Holscher U: Demonstration of the efficacy of ginkgo biloba special extract EGb 761 on intermittent claudication: A placebo-controlled, double-blind multicenter trial. Vasa 1998, 27:106-110.

7) De Bock K, Eijnde BO, Ramaekers M, Hespel P (Jun 2004). “Acute Rhodiola rosea intake can improve endurance exercise performance”. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 14 (3): 298–307.

8) Walker TB, Altobelli SA, Caprihan A, Robergs RA (Aug 2007). “Failure of Rhodiola rosea to alter skeletal muscle phosphate kinetics in trained men”. Metab Clin Exp. 56 (8): 1111–7.

9) Liang C, Podolka T, Chuang W: Panax ginseng supplementation enhances physical performance during endurance exercise.
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2005, 19:108-14.

10) Kim S, Park K, Chang M, Sung J: Effects of Panax ginseng extract on exercise-induced oxidative stress.
Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 2005, 45:178-82.

11) Whitehead MT, Martin TD, Scheett TP, Webster MJ: Running economy and maximal oxygen consumption after 4 weeks of oral Echinacea supplementation. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2012, 26(7):1928-33.

12) Cermak NM, Gibala MJ, van Loon LJ. : Nitrate supplementation’s improvement of 10-km time-trial performance in trained cyclists. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2012 Feb;22(1):64-71.

13) Cermak NM, Res P, Stinkens R, et al. : No improvement in endurance performance after a single dose of beetroot juice. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2012 Dec;22(6):470-8.


2 responses to “Herbal Supplements to Increase Cardio? That’s Flower Power!

  1. I take Athletic Green’s “Superfood Cocktail”. Although not for cardio specifically, it really lays the foundation for my daily activities. It’s sourced from whole foods, packed with probiotics and has a bunch of superfoods. What are your thoughts on supps/practices that aim to improve blood flow in order to increase your cardio results?

    • There are supps (herbal and non-herbal) that increase cardiac capacity/performance (beta-alanine for example) however, in my opinion, the best way to increase cardiac performance is thru doing it, i.e. biomechanical.

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