The purpose of today’s article is to examine the effects of omega-3 supplementation on athletic performance. I have previously written about the different types of fats, which include saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Within the category of polyunsaturated fats, there are three known sub-types: omega-3’s, omega-6’s and omega-9’s. These are fats that must be derived from the diet.
It has long been known that omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory, which has led to a robust market for omega-3 supplements over the years, primarily in the form of fish oil. Omega-3 fats include DHA and EPA, however, different supplements differ widely in the amount and ratio of EPA to DHA. It is difficult to know what the exact right ratio is of EPA:DHA.
On the other hand, what science does know is the mechanism by which omega-3’s reduce inflammation. These good fats inhibit the cyclooxygenase-2 pathway, which is an inflammatory pathway. As the omega-3 fats are incorporated into cell membranes, it acts to alter cell membrane fluidity, thus modifying proteins and cell function. This is one of the reasons why these good fats have the potential to promote recovery from muscle-damaging exercise.
Evidence for Strength/Power Athletes
There is strong evidence from studies of strength athletes to support omega-3 supplementation as a facilitator of muscle growth. In addition, omega-3’s appear to aid in preserving muscle mass during times of calorie restriction.
In a study published in the journal Clinical Studies (London, England), omega-3 supplementation for eight weeks increased the rate of muscle synthesis in older adults. Further, six months of supplementation resulted in a significant increase in quadriceps muscle size and muscle strength.
Evidence for Endurance Athletes
There are limited studies on the effects of omega-3 supplementation concerning endurance athletes. However, there is some evidence that suggests that omega-3 supplementation may improve endurance capacity by reducing the oxygen cost of long, aerobic efforts. This is likely due to the fact that these fats act as vasodilators, which help increase the flow of oxygen into muscle during exercise, a key player in endurance. In addition, omega-3 supplementation has been shown to reduce oxygen consumption, heart rate, and perceived exertion during endurance exercise.
In a three-week study published in the journal Lipid Technology, male athletes given omega-3 supplementation improved muscle function and fatigue compared with a placebo, suggesting that the omega-3 benefits humans in the area of improving fat metabolism, while also decreasing inflammation.
Recovery from exercise is important for reducing fatigue and improving long-term performance. During exercise, athletes incur oxidative stress, which is necessary in low levels for muscles to adapt. However, excessive and extreme exercise can lead to chronic inflammation, which then stress the body’s antioxidant systems.
This is where omega-3 fats shine, because of their anti-inflammatory properties. In Lipds, Health & Disease, a study of eleven healthy men and women given omega-3’s for one week, and found a significant decrease in delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) following strenuous exercise.
Based on the evidence of current studies, omega-3 supplementation has great potential for all athletes. It can help in training adaptation, recovery and injury prevention. Due to its anti-inflammatory properties, omega-3’s are also important for non-athletes.
However, do we need to take a supplement or can we get the health benefits from real food. Here is the opinion from sports dietician Leslie Bonci, who is also the team dietitian for the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, “Omega-3s can be protective in attenuating muscle soreness and oxidative stress post exercise, but you need to look at overall recommendations for recovery post exercise—fluid, carbs, and protein rule.”
Bonci suggests that fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, and tuna, which is rich in omega-3s, confers the added advantage of protein plus vitamins and minerals over omega-3 supplements. She also says that “research on omega-3s also is strong for improved pulmonary function, decreased risk of upper respiratory infections, and decreased inflammation—all of which benefit athletes and non-athletes alike.”