You're smart enough to know that there is no such thing as a nutritional magic bullet. You're well aware that no single food is going to make or break your performance—your entire diet matters. (As does your training. And mental prep. And so on.) But still, everyone is looking for an edge. So when you hear all of the buzz about cordyceps' benefits for athletes, no one would blame you for becoming at least a little curious about this supposedly "magic" mushroom.
Wait. What is cordyceps, exactly?
Cordyceps refers to a species of mushroom that has long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. If you were to see one in the wild, it would be tall and skinny. The mushroom has recently grown in popularity as a supplement in the U.S., with athletes consuming the mushroom as pills, elixirs or part of an infused coffee.
"Cordyceps is an adaptogen, not a stimulant, so it helps you maintain a constant energy level," says Tero Isokaupilla, founder of Four Sigmatic and author of Healing Mushrooms: A Practical and Culinary Guide to Using Adaptogenic Mushrooms for Whole Body Health. "Cordyceps is believed to be the remedy for fatigue, which is why it has also been used to recover from severe illness or surgery. Athletes also see great results in recovering from hard workouts."
What does research say about cordyceps' benefits for athletes?
What sort of results might one see from consuming cordyceps? There has been a decent amount of studies examining cordyceps' benefits for athletes, and to date they show that the mushroom:
- Can increase lactate threshold in humans, which is an indication of how intensely you can exercise. The higher your lactate threshold is, the harder and longer you can go.
- Can lead to improvements in VO2 Max and total time until exhaustion among young men who supplement with it.
- Stimulates ATP generation in the body's cellular powerhouses, the mitochondria. That means more energy for your body.
- Has improved exercise endurance in several studies in rats, although there has been mixed results of studies among humans.
- Is capable of killing human breast cancer cells, which may not be related to performance, but is gratifying to hear, because screw cancer.
That's all well and good in the lab. But do the benefits translate to better performance?
"I am a huge, huge fan [of cordyceps]," says author and professional endurance athlete Ben Greenfield. "I've competed in some of the most masochistic events on the planet, including many at altitude. I've found that, when I've I loaded with cordyceps leading up to the race, not only have I felt fantastic from an oxygen utilization standpoint, I got sick far less. " He says he's been using cordyceps regularly ever since his first race supplementing with the mushroom.
How much would an athlete need to consume to experience cordyceps' benefits?
Right now, the answer is unclear. Examine.com explains that the dosage range in human trials has been 1,000-3,000mg daily, but the minimum effective dose hasn't yet been determined.
It's also unclear whether an athlete would be better off consuming cordyceps before or after a workout.
Which athletes would most benefit from cordyceps?
The most compelling use cases to date for cordyceps are for endurance athletes like runners or cyclists. The mushroom's effect on lactate threshold and exercise endurance mean it'd be a potentially helpful addition for athletes who train or perform for long stretches of time. But a recent study out of the University of North Carolina indicates it might also be helpful for high-intensity training. Isokaupilla says he's tried it both ways and found cordyceps helpful for each.
"[Cordyceps is] best for athletes who rely on high oxygen intakes such as high-intensity endurance athletes and strength athletes who suffer temporary spikes in lactate acid," Isokaupilla says. "Personally, I used to run marathons and currently enjoy HIIT workouts at the gym. In both exercises, I enjoy the natural adaptogenic support cordyceps offers."
- 5 Endurance Supplements That Effectively Boost Your Stamina
- How Endurance Athletes Can Reap the Benefits of a Ketogenic Diet
- 3 Nutrition Mistakes Endurance Athletes Make and How to Fix Them