Tongcat Ali: Managing stress for cyclists
I finally lined up for the Iceman Cometh this year after burning out mid-October in both 2016 and 2017 and breaking my foot playing hockey a week before the 2018 race. With a pro field 100-deep that featured national champions, former World Tour pros, and about every build of elite mountain biker imaginable, I knew I needed to do everything possible to boost my sprint and anaerobic capabilities just to hang onto the back of the lead group for a few miles.
What that meant for my last training block before Iceman was 2-3 high-intensity interval workouts, 1-3 plyometric workouts, and 2-3 strength and core sessions per week. All of that added up to my usual 10 hours per week of training but combining strength, power, and interval workouts meant I was going to be dealing with a lot of fatigue while having to perform at a high level. Like most Americans I searched for a pharmacological antidote to the stress.
But first, understanding the body’s stress response to training
Cycling is hard on a number of levels but especially at the hormonal level. Intense or long rides activate the body’s stress response system and cause it to produce and release cortisol. One of the ways cortisol is used by the body is to reduce inflammation caused by torn muscle fibers following exercise. While this process is helpful for building muscle, long-term elevated cortisol levels lower bone density, suppress the immune system, and can lead to weight gain. Also, as cortisol levels increase in athletes, testosterone has been documented to fall 1 Testosterone is an anabolic steroid that plays a key role is building muscle and bone. An off-balance ratio between cortisol and testosterone has been a key marker of Overtraining Syndrome in athletes for decades. This hormonal response is one of the main reasons for recovery weeks—so that the cyclist’s body has time to return to normal hormone levels.
On the slopes of the Malaysian rainforests is a shrub-like plant whose roots have been a part of Southeast Asian medicine for centuries. The Tongkat Ali root (Eurycoma longifolia Jack), sometimes called Longjack or Malaysian ginseng, has long been used to combat disease, stress, and improve physical and sexual health. Only recently have scientists begun studying the body’s internal response to an extracted supplement of Tongcat Ali (TA). While the precise biological mechanism that causes its positive effects is unknown, study after study has found TA extract increases physical performance.
In one study, 14 men completed circuit weight training for five weeks with half taking 100mg/day of TA extract. The group taking TA saw a 7% increase in one-rep max strength and a 1.8 cm growth in arm circumference while the placebo group increased just 3% and saw no significant muscle growth. 2
Another study used 30 racers from a 24-hour mountain bike event and just one 100 mg supplementation of TA half an hour before the start. Eight saliva samples were taken over the course of the race and cortisol levels in the TA group were 32% lower than the placebo while testosterone levels were 16% higher. 3
While there are many more studies out there, these two show Tongcat’s beneficial effects for endurance athletes. Greater muscular force, increased muscle size, lower cortisol, and higher testosterone are a grand slam for cyclists (sorry to mix metaphors). And for those who have to worry about peeing in a cup, one double blind, placebo-controlled study took urine and blood samples from 13 athletes ingesting 400mg/day TA for six weeks. The urine analysis concluded no statistical differences in T:E ratio (the International Olympic Committee’s metric for doping control) and no toxic effects to the liver or kidneys. 4
How much to take
Most studies cycled supplementation for 4-6 weeks at a dose of 100-400mg/day. I would recommend trying Tongcat during an especially difficult training block like the one I completed prior to Iceman, during a racing/training block where form must be prioritized, or during the build or end-of-base phase where fatigue is particularly high. I took 400mg/day for six weeks leading up to Iceman and noticed less fatigue than normal while my power numbers kept climbing. I finished 16th.
Hoogeveen AR, Zonderland ML. Relationship between testosterone, cortisol and performance in professional cyclists. Int J Sports Med1996;17:423–8. ↩︎
Hamzah S, Yusof A. The ergogenic effects of Tongkat ali (Eurycoma longifolia): A pilot study. British J Sports Med. 2003;37:464–470. ↩︎
Talbott S, Talbott J, Negrete J, Jones M, Nichols M, Roza J. Effect of eurycoma longifolia extract on anabolic balance during endurance exercise [abstract] J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2006;3(1):S32. ↩︎
Chen, C. K., Mohamad, W. M., Ooi, F. K., Ismail, S. B., Abdullah, M. R., & George, A. (2014). Supplementation of Eurycoma longifolia Jack Extract for 6 Weeks Does Not Affect Urinary Testosterone: Epitestosterone Ratio, Liver and Renal Functions in Male Recreational Athletes. International journal of preventive medicine, 5(6), 728–733. ↩︎