Made up of two substances, eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, Omega-3 is integrated into the structure of the body and plays a key role in allowing enzymes and other catalytic molecules to function. This means it is essential for normal functioning but is also a powerful and natural anti-inflammatory that can reduce pain and stiffness from hard training and from inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, and can also help prevent overuse injuries in athletics.
An adequate dietary intake of fish oils is essential but, though eating oily fish or an equivalent can help improve your levels of Omega-3, they can never give you the concentrations required to get some of the real additional benefits. Many athletes already take Omega-3 supplements, but many more are unaware of the real benefits this relatively simple and easy-to-take supplement offers for improving both their health and their athletics performance.
Muscle damage and injury prevention
One of the main benefits of taking Omega-3 is the prevention of muscle damage and the reduction and prevention of soft-tissue injuries. Muscle damage can range from the pain you feel in the days following a long hill run to the chronic overuse injuries suffered by many athletes.
The muscle damage sustained during long runs and other strenuous athletic events leads to the degradation of protein structures within the body’s muscle and soft tissue. Following this, the body could require between 72 and 96 hours to fully recover, during which pain and inflammation may increase due to muscle damage, reducing muscle function, and thus performance.
Many athletes will treat these issues using over-the-counter painkillers to mask the pain, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce the inflammation, or alternative treatments such as amino-acid supplementation or the traditional approach of icing.
The problem is that masking or hiding the pain simply creates bigger issues in the long term as you continue to stress already damaged tissues. There are also potential side-effects of the regular use of anti-inflammatory drugs, and alternative treatments such as icing have been shown to be relatively ineffective when scientifically tested.
Omega-3 is known to be an anti-inflammatory, which reduces the production of leukotrienes and prostaglandins, suppresses the T-cell response, and prevents cytokine production. As well as this anti-inflammatory effect, Omega-3 has been shown to increase the rate of activation of key enzymes that control protein synthesis, which decreases in the rate of protein breakdown that occurs with damage.
Omega-3 supplementation has also been shown to affect collagen metabolism, increasing collagen production in the tendons and ligaments. Taken together, these effects aid recovery from hard training but also address the symptoms of common problems such as sprains, strains, and overuse injuries, allowing a faster return to training.
Scientific studies have used Omega-3 supplementation prior to purposefully inducing muscle damage through strenuous activity (people volunteer for this)! These studies showed a marked suppression in both pain and skeletal muscle circumference (a simple measure of inflammation) and an increase in the range of motion no later than 24 hours after the damage occurred.
Another study showed that after inducing muscle damage using a high volume of intense plyometric movements, taking high levels of Omega-3 limited losses in muscle function. Participants reported no increase in pain 24 hours after the damage was caused and saw only a 3% loss in explosive power, which was fully recovered by 48 hours after the damage occurred.
Compare this to alternative methods such as amino acids, which have been shown to produce only a 15 % reduction in pain 48 hours after damage occurs; bromelain and ibuprofen, which can mask the pain but have been shown to have no positive benefits in the management of muscle damage; and icing, which has been shown to have a similar lack of positive benefits.
Mental fatigue and improved cognition
As well as preventing injury and promoting recovery, supplementing Omega-3 can have other tangible benefits for athletes.
Many athletes look to nutritional supplements as a way of improving their physical performance, but few consider the very real impact these can have on their mental performance, whether this is judging distance, race pacing or strategy, or motivation and mental toughness.
When athletes physically push themselves or have to concentrate for a protracted period, they become mentally fatigued, they lose concentration, make simple mistakes and overlook things. When mentally fatigued, individuals also feel tired and drained and this affects their performance as it becomes harder to maintain pacing or perform at a high level.
Electroencephalogram in those undertaking Omega-3 supplementation has shown a reduction in the beta-2 band alongside an increase in theta and alpha bands, which suggests an improvement in cognitive functioning. Further, electromyography has shown a significant improvement in psychomotor reaction times, suggesting an improvement in nervous system activity.
Omega-3 supplements have also been shown to improve oxygen-rich blood flow to active areas of the brain during mental activities, which may boost cognitive abilities. This means Omega-3 can potentially help us make better, more accurate decisions and to react faster.
Research participants have also shown improvements in the ability to sustain attention for long periods. Additionally, they have also shown a reduction in mental fatigue, meaning that Omega-3 supplementation may be beneficial in improving attention, focus and concentration.
Studies have shown that mental fatigue leads to mistakes in judgement, timing and fine motor skills and a reduction in the amount of raw power we can produce. In studies where mental fatigue has been induced, participants perform significantly worse in both running and cycling time trials.
A typical individual would need a minimum of 1g of Omega-3 each day in the form of a supplement. Preferably, most individuals would take twice this amount and athletes and others involved in strenuous activities would need to take significantly more – 3-4g or perhaps 5g on a really tough day of training.
A range of Omega-3 supplements are available. The cheaper ones from places like China and Korea can sometimes be very low in purity (typically less than 30-40%), meaning that the majority of the capsule (almost two thirds) is filled not with Omega 3, but with another oil. This means that each capsule will have a smaller effect.
Omega-3 offers a range of potential benefits to athletes. A significant amount of evidence shows its role in the prevention and recovery from muscle damage and for the improvement and reduction in mental fatigue. Some evidence suggests Omega-3 supplements can improve body composition by increasing lean muscle mass and decreasing fat mass and that it can boost the lung function of athletes during and after exercise.
While Omega-3 is found in oily fish, seafood and seaweed, it is advisable to take a regular supplement for both health and performance benefits. Athletes are often looking for an extra performance edge, either from their training or from their diet and Omega-3 supplements may be just the thing they have been looking for.
While it potentially seems less glamorous than supplements that have complicated names and come in high-tech looking packaging, Omega-3 can have a real and measurable effect on your athletic performance.