In August of 1993, China’s Olympic women’s running team broke 3 world records at the World Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Germany – one of them, Wang Junxia, ran a record 2:24:07 in the marathon. A mere 2 months later, she broke more records at the National Games in China, including shaving off 42 seconds from the 10,000 meter record (running a 29:31).
As rumours of drug use began to spread, they were quickly shot down by the women’s coach, Ma Junren, who pointed to cordyceps. He’d been giving to his runners regularly, after each training session – and the international governing body found no evidence of banned substance use. Swearing by its energizing properties, its ability to enhance the body’s metabolism as well as relax and open up the upper respiratory tract, these runners ‘secret’ for speed and endurance was now public. Thus, cordyceps began to enjoy a boost in popularity worldwide.
(Unfortunately, in later years, the legitimacy of whether these athletes were really drug-free was called into question – and in 2000, coach Ma Junren was fired after 6 of his athletes failed doping tests…)
WHAT is Cordyceps sinensis?
Cordyceps is known as a ‘medicinal mushroom’. Traditionally a fungus that grows on the larva of butterflies and moths in China (yah, I know how gross that sounds!!), this form is now rare. Therefore strains from this natural fungus have been isolated and are fermented on a large-scale basis for commercial use. The form you’ll find in stores (and the form most studies typically use) is the cultured cordyceps, as the traditional form is extremely expensive!
HOW does Cordyceps work?
According to Burke and Deakin (Clinical Sports Nutrition, 4th ed 2010), Cordyceps sinensis is claimed to increase vasodilation and facilitate the delivery of oxygen to the working tissue, which is in fact the same mechanism by which beetroot juice has been scientifically proven to enhance endurance and performance in athletes. However, while beetroot juice enjoys a vast amount of research supporting it as a useful ergogenic aid, there’s not nearly as much science behind cordyceps. Burke and Deakin quickly conclude there is little evidence to support any claims made for cordyceps, citing examples such as this 2004 study where 22 well trained cyclists saw no change in aerobic capacity after taking 3.15 grams daily for 5 weeks.
However, more recently (May 2010), a study was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine showing us that 20 healthy elderly subjects given 333mg cordyceps for 12 weeks did see an improvement in their exercise performance and the study concludes that cordyceps might be a valuable contributor to health and wellness. And this 2011 study points out how cordyceps promoted exercise endurance capacity (in rats) by activating skeletal muscle metabolic regulators, with supplementation of 200mg/kg bodyweight for 15 days.
Exercise performance aside, there may be other reasons to supplement with cordyceps. It has been shown, as documented in this PubMed resource, to have remarkable health effects including benefits to the cardiovascular, respiratory, nervous, sexual (it’s known to increase testosterone production) and immunological systems, as well as having anti-cancer, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions, as outlined in more than 21 clinical studies.
WHO might want to try Cordyceps?
Despite the lack of evidence, Dr Weil says that cordyceps is one of his favourite treatments for a natural energy boost in those that struggle with low mood and compromised overall vitality. He recommends experimentation with cordyceps for several months to see changes.
Personally, as a runner who was struggling with low energy levels for a number of months at the beginning of this year, I was willing to bring anything (that was safe and legal of course) into my nutritional regime that might have a positive impact on the overwhelming fatigue I was struggling with. Among the changes I made, I began using Four Sigmatic Foods cordyceps elixir and gradually experienced a boost in energy levels to the point where today I no longer have complaints of fatigue.
Kinsey Gomez, a collegiate runner, began taking cordyceps in September of 2015 because she was feeling pretty fatigued with her training plus she was dealing with an under-active thyroid gland. She’d read about the Olympic level Chinese distance runners who got faster after incorporating these mushrooms into their diet, and her acupuncturist also raved about the energizing functions that cordyceps are purported to possess, so she was eager to try them. She picked up Host Defense’s Energy Support Cordyceps and began taking them in the morning with her breakfast and coffee. She typically takes 2 capsules on workout and race days and 1 capsule on non workout days. And as she says:
“After 6 months of consistent cordycep supplementation, I love this addition to my nutrition vocabulary. I have seen some spectacular results these last 6 months in my workouts and racing, and I do believe part of that is due to the cordyceps supplementation.”
Indeed, Kinsey just (a month ago) ran a 33:23 10k, a new PR for her and which ranked her 9th in the nation in college and 2nd in the nation in Canada! She likes taking her cordyceps before she works out because she feels it gives her more energy for her workout (almost similar to a second wind).
How much and in what form should one supplement with Cordyceps?
When choosing a cordyceps supplement, follow the directions on the package for use – generally dosages range from 1 to 3 grams daily. For example, the Four Sigmatic form that I use contains 1.5 grams per package. The capsule form that Kinsey uses contains 500mg per capsule with a recommended dose of 2 capsules daily (1 gram). Be sure to research a brand to ensure it’s using quality cordyceps and contains at least 1 gram per serving. And of course, talk with your MD or ND before using if you’re pregnant or have a medical condition or on medications.
Cordyceps is a natural sports supplement that may not have much scientific evidence behind it, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to utilize it alongside addressing the basic underlying reasons for low energy levels (such as are outlined in this blogpost).
To deliciously healthy food and stronger faster running… Cheers,
Sarah J Cuff, RHN