Can Essential Oils Help Support Exercise Performance?
Plants have long been used to improve stamina and focus. For example adaptogens such as maca (Lepidium meyenii), Panax ginseng, and ashwagandha (Withania somifera) have been traditionally used to support stamina and promote a sense of well-being. Most of us are familiar with the pick me up we can get from a cup or green tea or coffee and many endurance athletes turn to caffeine as an ergogenic aid with great success.
But what about the aromatic compounds in essential oils? Can the small volatile carbon based molecules found in essential oils enhance exercise performance, lung function, and endurance as well?
Research suggests they can. And perhaps anyone who has ever taken a whiff of peppermint essential oil can attest to feeling its invigorating effects.
The Need for Speed:
There are a number of studies that suggest aromatherapy has a positive effect on lung function, exercise performance, and reduces feelings of exhaustion.
Jaradat, N. et al. explored the effects of the inhalation of essential oils derived from Citrus sinensis (orange) flowers and Mentha spicata (spearmint) leaves on lung function and exercise performance. 1
Researchers evaluated exercise performance with a 1500m running test. After inhalation of essential oil administered via nebulizer from either Citrus sinensis flowers or Mentha spicata leaves researchers found there was a statistically significantly reduction in the mean 1500 m running time of participants. Both groups ran significantly faster with the Citrus sinensis group performing better than the Mentha spicata group.
Lung function was measured using a spirometer. Forced Expiratory Volume (FEV1) and Forced Vital Capacity (FVC) were both significantly increased after inhalation of essential oils, with the Citrus sinensis group showing greater improvement than the Mentha spicata group.
The FEV1/FVC ratio however, was significantly reduced only in the Citrus sinensis group.
The authors do caution that the results should be interpreted with care due to the small sample size (20 participants) and recommend further investigation of these promising findings. In the discussion the authors mention additional studies that also suggest essential oils can be beneficial to athletic performance.
For example, a study by McKenzie and Hedge (2005) found that inhalation of peppermint essential oil resulted in significantly lower heart rates in females while running 3.25 miles. 2
Radudenbush and colleagues (2001) also found a positive connection between inhalation of peppermint and improved running speed, handgrip strength, and number of push-ups performed. They did not, however, find effects on skill related tasks such as shooting free throws. 3
Going the Distance:
A study by Zhiyue, L. and collaborators evaluated the effect of inhalation of peppermint (Mentha x piperita) or an essential oil mixture of Citrus sinensis (orange peel oil), Mentha piperita (peppermint leaf oil), Syzygium aromaticum (clove bud oil), and Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary flower and leaf oil) on exercise-induced fatigue. 4
The researchers found that inhalation of the either peppermint essential oil or the essential oil mixture increased the amount of time to swim to exhaustion in rats, with the essential oil mixture group performing even better than the peppermint oil group.
Researchers also analyzed blood chemistry and that the group that inhaled the essential oil mixture had significantly higher levels of blood glucose after swimming, had significantly lower blood urea nitrogen levels, significantly lower blood lactic acid levels, and significantly higher levels of glutathione peroxidase.
What does all this mean? In essence (no pun intended) the results suggest inhalation of the essential oil mixture relieved exercise induced fatigue at a cellular level. Peppermint essential oil was effective as well, but less so than the mixture.
During exercise glycogen from the liver and muscles is broken down into glucose. The glucose supplies energy to the exercising muscles cells via the blood stream. The essential oil mixture appeared to reduce glucose consumption. In other words the essential oil mixture decreased the depletion of the energy source.
Furthermore, the concentration of other blood chemicals in the essential oil mixture group indicates improved glucose metabolism. There was less of a build up of lactic acid and other indicators of muscle fatigue. Overall the essential oil mixture group was using glucose more efficiently with slower build up of the metabolic products of muscle fatigue. Again the inhalation of peppermint essential oil alone was also effective but less so than the mixture.
The researchers suggest the results could provide a basis for the development of an anti-fatigue spray but that further study is needed to clarity the mechanism of action at the cellular and molecular level.
Before creating a spray or using these oils, knowledge of aromatherapy and essential oil safety is important. Citrus sinensis (orange peel oil), Mentha piperita (peppermint leaf oil), Syzygium aromaticum (clove bud oil), and Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary flower and leaf oil) each has a dermal usage limit, age appropriate usage guideline, and safe usage guidelines. Improper dosing could lead to sensitization reactions or burning/blistering of the skin.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and peppermint (Mentha x piperita) should be used with caution around children and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) with caution around those with epilepsy. 5 If in doubt when using essential oils consult a certified or clinical aromatherapist or in the least consult a reliable book or website.
A Word from the Wise:
In addition to clinical studies aromatherapists may simply use the wisdom that has been passed down to them from previous generations of essential oil users.
For example Valerie Worwood suggests beginning runners use a combination of equal parts eucalyptus, rosemary, and thyme diluted in carrier oil to support the respiratory and muscular system along with taking it easy when first embarking on a running or jogging program. She advocates massaging the oil blend onto the lower body prior to a run and as post run massage oil as well.
A dilution of four drops of each oil (twelve drops total) in an ounce of jojoba or fractionated coconut oil would be a good start. If the thought of oiling yourself up before and after a run is unappealing inhaling or diffusing this combination of essential oils would also be helpful. 6
Again eucalyptus and rosemary should not be used around small children and care should be taken when using these oils around people with asthma or epilepsy.
The Secret Weapon:
Worwood also divulges a competition blend to be reserved for big races. She advises equal parts of basil and bergamot diluted in carrier oil (five drops of each in an ounce of carrier for example). She advocates massaging the oil onto the body prior to completion and inhaling deeply. 6
However unless the bergamot is furocoumarin free it is highly phototoxic, which means that when applied to skin exposed to the sun blistering and burning can occur. So if you choose to use this massage oil you MUST get furocoumarin free bergamot if your skin will be exposed to the sun or use the oil on body parts that are NOT exposed to the sun.
However you can achieve great benefit from simply inhaling these essential oils prior to a big event. This can be done via diffuser or using an aroma inhaler.
Ways to Use Essential Oils to Support Athletic Performance:
So how can one start enjoying the benefits of essential oils during exercise, training, or athletic competitions? First of all it is important to educate yourself on the safe use of essential oils. Although essential oils are safe and natural, many of the oils mentioned in the articles have age and dermal use precautions.
Here are a few recipe ideas for using personal inhalation of essential oils to boost exercise and athletic performance:
Aroma inhalers are cotton wicks housed in a plastic or metal tube. My personal preference is to choose a supplier that uses organic cotton wicks. They are like personal diffusers. You can drip oils onto the wick or create the blend in a small oil safe dish, mix, and absorb the oils into the wick using tweezers. The wick is placed in the plastic or metal housing (avoid getting essential oils on the hands by using gloves or tweezers).
To use it is uncapped and placed near the nostrils. The user can simply inhale deeply. If you’d like to see how this is done many aromatherapy schools offer free videos that illustrate how to create an aroma inhaler.
Speed Boost Inhaler:
As a enthusiastic track mom and aromatherapist, I made a neroli (Citrus aurantium) and I believe bergamot (Citrus bergamia) inhaler for my daughter after reading about the benefits of neroli essential oil in reducing 1500m times.
I am not sure if she used it as I suggested but I’m certain she could smell the aroma of neroli (one of her favorites) and bergamot as I uncapped the inhaler to show her what I had made.
She won her season opening 800m race with a PR of 2:21.9. Now I can’t say for sure that the inhaler helped but it certainly didn’t hurt.
Neroli (Citrus aurantium) is quite expensive but exquisite. It can be combined with other less costly essential oils to create a lovely inhaler that can last for several weeks or more. You can often find neroli/petigrain (Citrus aurantium flower and leaf) co-distilled essential oil as a more cost effective option.
Items needed: One aroma inhaler Neroli (Citrus aurantium) or Neroli/Petigrain essential oil Bergamont (Citrus bergamia) essential oil Sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) essential oil
Add 1-3 drops of neroli (Citrus aurantium) or neroli/petigrain, 6 drops of bergamot (Citrus bergamia), and 6 drops of sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) to the cotton wick. Place the wick into the plastic or metal housing and seal. Uncap and breath aroma for two to fifteen minutes prior to race or exercise. Have a rad race or speed workout. You can adjust the number of drops and ratios to suit your aromatic taste just keep total number of oils to about 15 to 20 drops.
Going the Distance Inhaler:
To support longer races, all day events, or even to support a long work day try this inhaler blend to go the distance.
Items needed: Aroma inhaler Citrus sinensis (orange peel oil) Mentha piperita (peppermint leaf oil) Syzygium aromaticum (clove bud oil) Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary flower and leaf oil)
Add 8 drops of orange, 3 drops of peppermint, 1 drop of clove bud, and 3 drops of rosemary to an organic cotton wick or use a small dish to mix oils and use tweezers to soak the oils into the cotton. Place the wick in the plastic or metal housing and sel. Uncap and breath the aroma before and during endurance training, race, or excursion for support. Use appropriate cautions with rosemary, clove, and peppermint essential oils.
Again you can adjust the oil ratios to suit your aromatic preference. Clove bud oil can be irritating to mucus membranes so only a drop or two is recommended.
To be reserved for big races and events: Items needed: Aroma inhaler Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum) essential oil Sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) essential oil
Add 6 drops bergamot, 6 drops orange, and 1-3 drops of basil to your cotton wick as described above. Adjust essential oil ratios to your liking keeping total drops at 13-20. Uncap and inhale before a big event and set a personal best.
Whether you are racing, involved in an endurance sport, or simply want a boost for your exercise routine or outdoor adventures aromatherapy can effectively and naturally support your best efforts.
Aromatic blessings my friends,
1. Nidal Amin Jaradat, Hamzeh Al Zabadi, Belal Rahhal, Azmi Mahmoud Ali Hussein, Jamal Shaker Mahmoud, Basel Mansour, Ahmad Ibrahim Khasati and Abdelkhaleq Issa (2016), The effect of inhalation of Citrus sinensis flowers and Mentha spicata leave essential oils on lung function and exercise performance: a quasi-experimental uncontrolled before-and-after study; Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 13 (36)
2. MacKenzie CM, Hedge A. Is peppermint an ergogenic Aid to athletic performance? Rev Hum Factors Ergon. 2005;49:1229–33.
3. Raudenbush B, Corley N, Eppich W. Enhancing athletic performance through the administration of peppermint odor. J Sport Exercise Psychol. 2001; 23(2):156–60.
4. Zhiyue Li, Fengzhi Wu, Haozhen Shao, Yu Zhang, Angran Fan,and Feng Li (2017), Does the Fragrance of Essential Oils Alleviate the Fatigue Induced by Exercise? A Biochemical Indicator Test in Rats, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine Vol 2017 Article ID: Article ID 5027372, 7 pages, http://doi.org/10.1155/2017%2F5027372
5. Tisserand, R. and Young, R. (2014), Essential Oil Safety, China: Elsevier
6. Worwood, V. (1991), The Complete Book of Essential Oils & Aromatherapy, New World Library: Californiastimulants such as caffeine to support exercise performance, but can the small volatile carbon based molecules found in essential oils enhance exercise performance, lung function, and endurance as well?