Can Ginger Help with Exercise Recovery?
Supplements that are supposed to help with recovery and exercise are numerous…and confusing.
You’ve probably seen all kinds of claims about herbs and supplements and how they can enhance your health, your body, and muscle recovery.
One that is often touted as great for improving recovery after working out is ginger, the spicy, tasty root that comes in forms ranging from fresh to candied to powdered, and even in tea.
The problem is that research doesn’t always back up the claims the sellers of such supplements make. They sometimes use trick wording, like:
"Ginger MAY help with exercise recovery."
What does that really mean? Will it or will it not help?
It has long been known that ginger has anti-inflammatory properties, and people have been using fresh and prepared ginger root for centuries to treat all kinds of maladies:
- Appetite loss
- Muscle soreness
But what does modern research say about ginger and exercise recovery?
Can ginger really relieve sore muscles after a workout? If so, how well does it work? What type of ginger works best? And in what amounts?
To answer these questions, and others, let’s take a look at what the science says about ginger.
Ginger, Exercise, and Oxidative Stress
Exercise can produce oxidative stress in the body, an imbalance between harmful free radicals and natural antioxidants. Athletes turn to natural antioxidants, like ginger, to reduce the imbalance and to correct oxidative stress.
A study from 20141 set out to discover whether ginger can really help combat post-workout oxidative stress. Researchers divided 32 obese male participants into four groups:
- The control group,
- A group that took a ginger supplement,
- A group that participated in progressive resistance training (PRT),
- And a group that did PRT and took a ginger supplement.
The results of this study showed that ten weeks of either ginger supplementation OR resistance training protects against oxidative stress in obese participants.
But what was really interesting was that the group that took ginger and did resistance training did not get a benefit. It was as if the exercise and ginger canceled each other out.
The oxidative damage was only reduced when resistance training was performed separately; not when combined with ginger supplementation. This was a small study, though, which means it has limitations.
Although this study found no benefit in combining resistance training with ginger supplementation, another study found that eating blueberries combined with training induces an increase in the antioxidant potential of the blood.2
The authors of the ginger study were unable to explain the results but speculated that some negative feedback mechanism occurred. It seemed as if natural antioxidant production was inhibited when dietary antioxidants were introduced.
As this study shows, obese men can expect reduced oxidative stress simply because of their training routine. Therefore, caution should be applied using supplementation during exercise training as a "therapeutic" nutritional.
Ginger: Dry, Raw, or Heated?
Gingerol is one of the active compounds in ginger that is known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Some people believe that dried ginger has concentrated amounts of gingerol and is, therefore, a better supplement than fresh or raw ginger.
There are also differing opinions on whether the ginger should be cooked or raw.3 Some sources say cooked ginger is better than raw ginger for antioxidant effects.
Whether these statements are true or not hasn't been completely answered, but one study did compare raw and cooked ginger. The study, from 2009, worked with 74 students who performed eccentric exercises every day for eleven days while also taking a ginger supplement.
The students were split into three groups: One group took raw ginger, another ate cooked ginger, and the third group consumed a placebo and acted as the control. The researchers found that both raw and heated ginger impacted post-workout muscle pain equally:
They both reduced muscle pain by 23 to 25 percent.4
Not a bad result, but the next question is, how long do you need to supplement with ginger to get this effect?
Is There a Ginger Time Limit?
While there is some evidence that ginger can reduce post-workout muscle pain, we still need to know how long it needs to be used as a supplement to have an effect.
In one study of 28 high-level endurance runners, the researchers found that prolonged, intense training significantly elevated inflammatory cytokines in the blood plasma, which was expected. They also found that these high levels of inflammation were reversed in the group that was given ginger.
The study investigators determined that the runners needed to take ginger for six weeks before they saw positive results. Based on their findings, they recommended that high-performing athletes begin a six-week course of ginger supplementation prior to important competitions to properly prepare them for optimal performance and recovery.
Other Food-Based Supplements
There are various supplements that are reputed to reduce pain or inflammation, in addition to ginger:
- Bromelain (found in pineapple)
As with ginger, it can be hard to know if these really work, or if as some studies with ginger found, if they may actually counteract the effect of natural antioxidant production.
In fact, there is some evidence that two supplements may counteract each other.
For example, in a study of 60 female Taekwondo athletes, they were given one of four supplements:
- Ginger and Cinnamon
- A placebo
Results showed that while ginger or cinnamon alone offered a positive, post-workout effect as compared to the placebo group, those women taking the combination fared no better than those who received the placebo.6
Should You Try Ginger Supplementation?
This is a tricky question to answer, as the results of many of the studies contradict each other. There is also no clear answer on dosage or form of ginger to use. For instance, you can try capsules, eat fresh ginger root, or drink ginger tea.
The research we’ve presented for you here is interesting and may be useful in helping you decide if you want to try ginger for exercise recovery. The good news is that ginger is largely considered safe. It is a food, so there are no real risks or potential side effects, although a few individuals may find it causes stomach upset.
Knowledge is power, so we encourage all our readers to take the information and to continue their own research. Knowing more about the research can help you be better informed when you discuss supplements with your doctor and with your training clients.
If you're interested in the power of food and helping clients on another level, check out the ISSA's Certified Nutritionist course
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I am a retired scientist, age 55, I recently graduated with a degree in exercise science and also have the Masters certification [Master Trainer] from ISSA as well, do you think I am too old to be a fitness trainer and to be taken seriously, do you think people will respond well since I am an old guy, I don't look my age at all and am in fantastic shape, however fitness trainers are usually half my age, thoughts?