guide to aromatherapy for athletes

If you’re an optimistic and curious person, there are seemingly endless options to improve your health (and thus, make you a better athlete).

One that’s not often thought of, but certainly not as far of a stretch as purported miracle cures (raspberry ketones, anyone?), is aromatherapy.

Could this therapy be beneficial for endurance athletes? Or is it just smoke and mirrors… err…. smells and vapors?

What Is It?

Aromatherapy is a form of alternative medicine that uses certain plants and their oils to bring about certain results to your mind and body. It is claimed to alter both your physical and psychological well-being.

It’s a little more complicated than just smelling some flowers, but that’s essentially what this consists of.

The first step is to take the plant and turn it into something than be easily used. So they take a plant’s leaves, stems, roots, and/or flowers, then crush and dry them, or boil them and extract the essential oils.

The essential oils are then applied to your body using a variety of methods.

The Essential Oils

Aromatherapy centers around the use of essential oils, and there are many to choose from. (Different plants/herbs will have different uses and desired results.)

Common choices include:

  • Lavender
  • Eucalyptus
  • Rosemary
  • Peppermint
  • Lemon

What are they used for?


Lavender is extremely common and a very popular scent. It is used to treat anything from stress, anxiety, and headaches, to aches and pains and even burns.


Being a natural antibacterial, Eucalyptus is often used when you have a respiratory illness. It’s also common for topical applications (both to your skin and to objects such as yoga mats.)


Rosemary is a mental stimulant and may also help treat muscle aches and pains.


Peppermint is a potent, uplifting scent. I’m a huge fan – I find it very invigorating!

Aside from the anti-stress, anti-anxiety, and anti-depressant uses, peppermint is used for digestive disorders. (You may have heard to drink peppermint tea for a stomach ache – well it’s not an old wives tale!)


Lemon is also used to treat depression and anxiety, and said to be uplifting and stress-relieving. The key is that there is actually a study showing that lemon appeared to enhance mood!

How Does It Work?

Well, to be frank, we’re not really sure yet.

There are two theories out there.

The first is that aromas influence the brain. The scent first stimulates nerves in the nose, and those nerves then stimulate nerves in the brain. It’s like when you smell food and get hungry. Things get fuzzy after that, though.

Sort of like this:

1. Stimulate nerves in the nose
2. Stimulate nerves in the brain
3. ?
4. Profit

(This sequence reminds me of foot reflexology, which has its critics.)

The other idea is that the essential oils enter the bloodstream and interact directly with the body’s hormones and enzymes. This also seems plausible, but it also seems easier to prove with testing, and that hasn’t happened yet.

However you look at it, there is not much scientific evidence!

The only thing that separates it from the Dr. Oz miracle berries is that you can feel (smell) the effects immediately and know if it’s working or not. (These effects are more likely from the placebo effect and/or power of suggestion, but hey, it’s something.)

The best study I found was a fairly recent one conducted in 2008 at Ohio State University… and it showed that aromatherapy does little if anything. Read the abstract, it’s actually interesting. (It’s the study that shows lemon oil has an effect!)

The main selling point is still one of those “they’ve been doing it for thousands of years, it must be good” arguments common in alternative medicine. (Hey, it worked for the Paleo Diet.)

Does It Make Sense for an Endurance Athlete?

In some cases, I do think aromatherapy will provide benefits for endurance athletes, especially racers.

If you’re stressed out from work and need to relax in the evening, a pleasant scent could help you escape and drift off to sleep.

Nervous about an upcoming race? Some lemon or lavender aroma could put you at ease!

For the most part, any performance enhancing benefits would result from improved state of mind, and being more relaxed in general.

There’s one exception – digestion. If you ever experience GI distress before or during your workouts and races, it would be interesting to test the use of peppermint oil as a treatment or preventative aid.


Where Do I Go for Treatment?

There’s no such thing as a “doctor of aromatherapy.” You could find a certified aromatherapist somewhere, although the agency issuing the certification should be checked out. Some colleges offer a certificate program in aromatherapy, but I have no idea how thorough of a program that is.

Look up holistic medicine or alternative medicine in your area to see your options.

Typically, aromatherapy is used by massage therapists, acupuncturists, chiropractors, etc. in addition to their main practice. That’s who I would go to.

Aromatherapy at Home

You don’t have to go to the yoga studio or get a professional massage to experience it. You can purchase everything you need.

First, get the oil. It will be labeled as “therapeutic grade,” and you can find it at and other retailers.

There are three options for using it:

  • Diffusion in the air
  • Direct inhalation
  • Topical application

To diffuse scents through the air of the room, you’ll want a diffuser. If you want to inhale directly, you’ll want a vaporizer. (Both are covered in the next section.)

For topical applications, you can add a few drops into your bath water, massage oil, or chamois cream.

It’s generally a safe practice for healthy individuals, as long as you’re not swallowing the oil.

Of course, the key word there, is generally. If you have a lung condition like asthma, be careful. Likewise, if you’re on any medications. Or pregnant. Or breastfeeding. Check with your doctor.

Diffusers vs Vaporizers

Diffusers and vaporizers can both be used for aromatherapy, albeit in different ways.

zaq allay litemist diffuser

Diffusers are the most common way to enjoy aromatherapy. They are very simple to use, relatively inexpensive ($30-50,) and everyone in the room benefits.

To use one, you simply fill it with water, add a few drops of your favorite essential oil, plug it in, and turn it on. It will emit a mist that fills the room with the aroma of whatever oil you’re using.

If you’re looking for your first diffuser, consider the ZAQ Allay Litemist, which can be found for under $35.

A vaporizer is a little more complex. With a vaporizer, you start with the actual plant material (crushed and dried herbs, usually,) and the vaporizer heats that up with hot air until the essential oils are released in a vapor you inhale.

Using a vaporizer (“vaping”) is a method of direct inhalation and is the preferred method if you want a hearty dose of something. Let’s say you have a sore throat and want to use eucalyptus to help it. Vaping could be your best option, since you’re getting a concentrated dose right where you need it.

volcano vaporizer

The downside is the price. One of my friends has something called a Volcano Vaporizer, which is made by Storz & Bickel, a well-known German company. It costs $420. This thing was named one of the best vaporizers this year, but still, that’s 10 times the price of most diffusers!

If it wasn’t for her ability to perfectly execute the Hummingbird and Firefly yoga poses, I’d question what she used it for. 😉

But she’s a well-practiced yogi and is always talking about aromatherapy. (Did I mention she drives a BMW? Yeah.)

While we’re on the topic, yes, cannabis is probably the most popular use for a vaporizer. Unless you are really, really sold on aromatherapy as medicine, you’re most likely going to stick with a diffuser and essential oils.

If you do happen to live in a state where you have medicinal marijuana, and you’re not a professional racer subject to drug testing, a vaporizer would be ideal (or at least the lesser of two evils), because it allows you to avoid smoking – and that’s good for your lungs.

My Final Verdict on Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is an interesting way to relax, it’s not too difficult or expensive to get started, and it’s relatively safe. If you have trouble relaxing, get stressed easily, or feel depressed, it could be a great option for you.

Precision Nutrition has investigated and discovered that not all essential oils are snake oil. Furthermore, some may ease joint pain or increase testosterone!

If you want it to cure your ailments, though, don’t get your hopes up. The American Cancer Society sums it up nicely:

“Available scientific evidence does not support claims that aromatherapy is effective in preventing or treating cancer, but its use may enhance quality of life.” (Source)

That’s where I stand on aromatherapy. It’s not going to do anything specific or measurable for my health, but it might make me happy, so that’s a good thing!

Show References

Do you think aromatherapy is right for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!
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