In honor of last Sunday's marathon in Burlington, VT, I offer some of my favorite herbs for dealing with common complaints runners (and especially distance runners) mention.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita, Anthemis nobilis) is an excellent antispasmodic for the stomach and intestines. A mild tea (2 TBS of flowers brewed in 1 quart of hot water) relieves the cramping, "stitches", spasming, and gas that can develop over the course of a long run. Carry some with you - no more than 8oz for every 13 miles is necessary - and take little sips every few miles to help control gastrointestinal symptoms. The tea can be taken cold, and has a pleasant and refreshing flavor. Mix with a little maple syrup if desired for an extra sugar boost.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) is perhaps my favorite performance enhancer, working very well in the short term, reducing fatigue and improving your muscle's utilization of glucose and oxygen. Try 120 drops (about 4ml) of a liquid extract 20-40 minutes before a race. Because it gives you a "little extra" (without the dangers of stimulants like Ephedra), I save it for races and don't use it during training. Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is good as well, but needs to be taken for a few weeks for optimal effect.
Recovery and injury treatment can be a long and difficult process. Muscles bounce back quickly - feed them with adequate sugars and a little good quality protein. Ligaments and tendons, on the other hand, take a lot more effort. I've experimented with a variety of internal and external treatments, and have come to prefer the following regimen:
First off, gentle movement (walking or slow jogging) is preferable to just resting. This allows all the sinews in your legs to warm up, making the next step more effective.
Secondly, stretching after running is crucial. There are a variety of techniques out there - do your research and find what works for you. I like to allow at least 15-20 minutes for stretching, even after a short 3-mile run.
Thirdly, ice is your friend. After stretching, apply ice to problem areas for 5 to 10 minutes, and follow with a warm shower or compress. You can then apply Arnica (Arnica montana) gel or oil if there is any inflammation with swelling.
St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) oil is helpful if you have radiating nerve pain, like a pinched nerve in your shoulders, or sciatic nerve pain running down the back of your leg. Rub a liberal amount of the oil on the problem area(s).
For long-term support in the health of ligaments and tendons, I rely on two herbs in particular: Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) and Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica). Both help improve circulation and reduce inflammation. They can be taken as liquid extracts (Gotu Kola must be prepared fresh, in my opinion, to be most effective), and Horse chestnut tincture can be applied topically as well to excellent effect. I have used and recommended these herbs in combination for conditions like IT band syndrome, achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, and the general sprains and strains of running. They work quite well, along with ice and stretching, over the course of a few weeks.
As the summer season comes into full bloom, keep on running (or hiking, or walking, or swimming, or paddling, or simpy playing) and stay injury-free with herbs!