For athletes to continue to push the limits in performance, they must first push the limits of their training. Maintaining peak physical condition is especially important in non-team sports.
When it’s you versus the bar, the track, or the opponent across from you; the days you skipped training, the lack of progress you’ve made by not pushing yourself, and your injuries/instabilities will be exposed. This is the reason why supplementation to optimize training and recovery is considered to be so important for those seeking peak physical condition.
It’s not about finding a magic pill for the day of the event, it’s about using proven ingredients (that are either produced by your body or required in your diet), in concentrated doses to meet the higher demand your placing on your body (a higher demand than nature intended for you to be able to meet through diet alone).
The supplement being focused on in this article is fish oil, more specifically, the Omega 3’s found in fish oil. For those that aren’t familiar and have been skipping out on fish in their diets; Omega 3’s have been a hot topic through research the last several years as a result of its numerous health benefits: reducing inflammation, reduction in joint pain, reducing blood fat levels, improved cognitive function (protecting against Alzheimer’s and depression), skin health, eye health, cancer prevention and improving cardiovascular and heart health.
The reason Omega 3’s provide so many health benefits comes as a result of its ability to reduce whole body inflammation. A ‘pro-inflammatory’ state is typically the result of our Omega 6 polyunsaturated fat consumption (which is typically high in our diets) far exceeding our intake of Omega 3’s.
When this inflammation becomes more chronic with age it leads to degenerative diseases related with age. (1) This relationship between whole body inflammation and poor health is assured by research and prompted a workshop by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Geroscience Interest Group (GSIG) in 2012 to discuss possible solutions to chronic diseases and inflammation. (1)
How does this research apply to those involved in high intensity exercise (or any exercise for that matter)? Joint pain and stiffness are not only symptoms relating to ageing; but those who are involved in regular exercise suffer from this as well. This doesn’t mean that exercise leads to chronic inflammation, the truth is just the opposite: regular exercise and proper diet (including the proper ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 as mentioned previously) reduces chronic inflammation. (2)
However inflammation in the joints, especially inflammation related to overuse (like tendonitis) are a source of major setbacks and pain for those who push their bodies during exercise. As mentioned previous, joint inflammation with age becomes harder to fight.
“So why not just use pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications?” Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications like aspirin and ibuprofen work by blocking prostaglandins; this can interfere with blood flow to your organs like the stomach and kidneys. This is a concern for those who train on a regular basis as blood flow to your organs is already reduced during exercise.
NSAID’s can be used by athletes for acute onsets of pain but experts do not recommend it for use on a regular basis because it has been shown to interfere with optimal training and recovery. (3) In the 2009 British Journal of Sports Medicine, Stuart Warden from the Department of Physical Therapy, School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at Indiana University says that NSAID’s compromise the musculoskeletal system and that the prostaglandins they block are also responsible for your connective tissues adaptations to mechanical stimuli (weight bearing exercises).
So the next question becomes, “Which Omega 3 supplement should you choose?” You’ll find comparisons of some of the top fish oil supplements on the market below. Some key things to look for:
- Fish oil concentration: a higher concentration of fish oil is associated with less impurities, side effects and better bioavailability.
- Liquid vs. Softgel: liquids tend to offer better concentrations and higher levels of Omega 3’s, but they are not for everyone; bad breath, aftertaste and a ‘fishy reflux’ are associated with some liquids. Some softgels are enteric coated to prevent premature breakdown reducing these symptoms.
- DHA vs. EPA: EPA is considered to be more athlete specific as it relates more to providing anti-inflammatory benefits, especially those related to promoting heart health and was found to be primarily responsible in fighting depression.4 However, it is possible for DHA to convert to EPA in the body when necessary. To ensure high levels of EPA in conjunction with high intensity training, it may be best to supplement with high levels of EPA if you’re an athlete. DHA is typically associated with cognitive function, prenatal health, eye health and heart health as well.
1. Howcroft TK, et al. The role of inflammation in age-related disease. Aging (Albany NY). 2013 Jan;5(1):84-93.
2. Petersen AM, Pedersen BK. The anti-inflammatory effect of exercise. J Appl Physiol. 2005 Apr;98(4):1154-62.
3. Stuart J Warden. Prophylactic misuse and recommended use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs by athletes. Br J Sports Med 2009;43:548-549 doi:10.1136/bjsm.2008.056697
4. Martins JG. EPA but not DHA appears to be responsible for the efficacy of omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in depression... J Am Coll Nutr. 2009 Oct;28(5):525-42.