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Helping a tired body recover

January 09, 2006|Elena Conis

Many herbs, vitamin complexes and amino acids are popped before a workout to improve performance, burn fat and build muscle. But some are used the day after a strenuous workout, when tired muscles and aching joints are crying out for a quick recovery. As with most supplements, data are limited, but the following have some studies supporting, or at least questioning, such uses.

Elena Conis



Many products containing Arnica montana, a yellow-flowered member of the daisy family, are homeopathic remedies, meaning they contain an almost undetectable amount of arnica. In recent years, less dilute topical products have become popular.

Uses: Some athletes use arnica gels, ointments and creams to reduce swelling and pain in sore muscles. Others believe homeopathic tablets can speed workout recovery.

Dose: When choosing gels or creams, look for products containing 10% to 15% arnica oil. The dried leaves can also be used to make a hot compress.

Precautions: People allergic to plants in the daisy family, such as marigolds and chamomile, may react to arnica. It should not be taken by mouth without the guidance of a doctor or homeopathic practitioner, and it shouldn't be applied to skin with open cuts or sores.

Research: A study of about 80 runners in the 1990 and 1995 marathons in Oslo, Norway, found that those who took homeopathic arnica tablets starting the night before the race experienced less soreness after the run than runners given a placebo. But in both groups, the time it took for muscles to fully recover was the same. In a much larger study, published in the Clinical Journal of Pain in 1998, distance runners who took homeopathic arnica before and after a race performed no better and experienced the same level of muscle soreness as those who took a placebo.


The name bromelain refers to a group of protein-digesting enzymes from the fruits and stems of plants belonging to the pineapple family.

Uses: Supplements are used to reduce pain and swelling, speed healing time for athletic strains and sprains and prevent muscle soreness after intense exercise.

Dose: Bromelain is measured in milligrams and gelatin digestion units, a measure used to quantify bromelain's enzyme activity. People seeking to treat injuries often take up to 2,000 GDUs, or 500 milligrams, three times a day. Those seeking to prevent injury or soreness often take bromelain the day before a strenuous workout and continue to take it for up to three days after the workout.

Precautions: Bromelain may cause side effects such as cramps or nausea.

Research: A 2002 study published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine showed that bromelain did little to alleviate pain or improve range of motion in athletes with elbow injuries. In a randomized study of more than 700 patients with sprained ankles, published in 2004 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, bromelain appeared to reduce pain in the week after an injury, but did little to speed overall healing compared with a placebo. And a small study of downhill runners, also in 2004, showed that those taking a combination protease supplement, which included bromelain, experienced less post-workout soreness than those given a placebo.


The distinctively fragrant eucalyptus is found in several over-the-counter remedies for congestion, halitosis and arthritis. Although the plant is well known as an herbal remedy for stuffy noses and nagging coughs, oil from the leaves of this Australian native were also first used by Aborigines to heal cuts and soothe body aches and joint pains.

Uses: Some athletes use eucalyptus rubs to warm muscles and relieve post-workout soreness.

Dose: Rub a few drops of diluted eucalyptus oil or a dab of eucalyptus ointment on the sore area. Look for products comprised of at least two-thirds of the active ingredient eucalyptol.

Precautions: Rare side effects of topical eucalyptus include nausea or a mild rash. The oil should never be swallowed.

Research: In animal and lab studies, European and Russian researchers have demonstrated eucalyptus' ability to reduce inflammation and relax muscles. The oil has not been fully studied in active, exercising people. A small study of a eucalyptus-based ointment at UC Irvine in 1991 showed that the product did increase skin temperature and the flow of blood, suggesting that it could be effective in relieving muscle soreness.

Glucosamine and

chondroitin sulfate

Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are natural components of human cartilage, but the source of these molecules in supplement form is often pig, fish or shark cartilage.

Uses: Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are often taken in combination to treat pain and range of motion in the joints of runners. They're also often used to alleviate arthritis symptoms.

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