Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids meaning they contain more than one carbon double bond in their structure. The main two omega-3 fatty acids are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These two fatty acids have been purported to have several mechanisms that may contribute to gaining an athletic advantage either directly or indirectly in current literature. Some of the effects of omega-3 fatty acids have been discussed in this article.
NERVOUS SYSTEM: The nerves of the central and peripheral nervous system also contain polyunsaturated fatty acids which help comprise muscle membranes, myelin sheath and the axon terminals of neurons. Research has shown that supplementation with omega-3 may improve nerve conduction and neuromuscular engagement during exercise which may have an indirect effect on the neural adaptations to training (Lewis et al. 2015).
INFLAMMATION: Exercise causes oxidative stress on the body and while low levels of oxidative stress is required for adaptations, chronic oxidative stress and the resulting inflammation can heavily affect the body’s antioxidant systems and may prolong recovery which is a costly price to pay in high performance sport with ever increasing schedules and shorter recovery periods. Omega-3 fatty acids are precursors to prostaglandins which are compounds similar to hormones and help in reducing inflammation (Jouris et al. 2011). EPA and DHA are also thought to affect membrane fluidity in cells and the production of cytokines which all lower the effect of exercise on muscle damage and inflammation (de Silva et al. 2016). Omega-3 supplementation has also shown increased joint range of motion which is an essential requirement of many sports such as swimming and gymnastics (Goldberg and Katz 2007).
ENDURANCE TRAINING: Omega-3 fatty acids, according to theory and rodent studies acts as a vasodilator which helps increase the transport of oxygen to the working muscles during exercise (Le Guen et al. 2015).A study on young athletes also showed improvements in muscle flexibility, lower peak heart rate during exercise, reduced resting heart rate variability and oxygen consumption during exercise. While vasodilation could contribute to the lower oxygen consumption and lower peak heart rate due to a high concentration of oxygen being transported into the muscles, the other effects and their mechanisms are unclear (Da Boit et al. 2017).Overall, most studies supplementing Omega-3 to endurance athletes have shown non-significant results in improvement in performance and/or recovery and therefore supplementation in highly trained endurance athletes is not warranted. Athletes with a low training age and adults with known heart problems may benefit the most with Omega-3 supplementation.
STRENGTH ATHLETES: This population has seen most benefits of Omega-3 supplementation and the main effects have been to reduce inflammation and improve muscle activation via beneficial changes to nerves and their conduction ability. Several studies have shown improved strength training performance and the primary inflammatory cytokine Interleukin-6 concentrations were reduced by up to 30% resulting in decreased DOMS and loss of muscle strength post exercise (Corder et al. 2016; Tsuchiya et al. 2016).
GENERAL HEALTH: EPA and DHA have also been shown to be effective at suppressing lipogenic gene expression which in simple terms means the synthesis and storage of fats in the body. They also increase the oxidation of fat by increasing the activity of Carnitine Palmitoyltransferase 1 (CPT 1) which is required for the transport of fatty acids into the mitochondrial membrane for oxidation. Therefore, Omega-3 supplementation may be effective in fat loss (El Badry et al. 2007).EPA and DHA supplementation also stabilized many post exercise cardiovascular markers like heart rate recovery, stroke volume and heart rate variability is old adults with a history of myocardial infarctions.While the overall effects of Omega-3 supplementation on exercise performance may not be as clear as some other supplements such as Creatine, for example. However, depending on an athlete’s individual goals, training routines and training loads, supplementing with Omega-3 may prove to be a worthwhile decision.
SUPPLEMENTATION: Omega-3 fats can be ingested via omega-3 rich fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines. A large quantity of fish may need to be ingested to gain amounts which are similar to the protocols in the above-mentioned studies. This may also result in unwanted increases in total daily calories which may be more than the athlete’s daily requirements.If supplementing, then 3-4 grams per day (1.5-2g of EPA and 1.5-2g of DHA) seems to be sufficient to induce anti-inflammatory and other beneficial effects. For competing athletes, it is important to only take Omega-3 supplements by manufacturers who have been tested by organisations such as NSF International and are on the informed-choice or informed sports lists to reduce the risk of ingesting a banned substance by any of the sports federations or WADA.
Jouris, K., McDaniel, J. and Weiss, E. (2011) The effect of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on the inflammatory response to eccentric strength exercise. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 10, 432-438.
De Silva, E., Nachbar, R., Lavada-Pires, A., Hirabara, S. and Lambertucci, R. (2016) Omega-3 fatty acids differentially modulate enzymatic anti-oxidant systems in skeletal muscle cells. Cell Stress and Chaperones, 21, 87-95.
Goldberg, R. and Katz, J. (2007) A meta-analysis of the analgesic effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation for inflammatory joint pain. Pain, 129 (1-2), 210-223.
Lewis, E., Radonic, P., Wolever, T. and Wells, G. (2015) 21 days of mammalian omega-3 fatty acid supplementation improves aspects of neuromuscular function and performance in male athletes compared to olive oil placebo. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12 (28).
Le Guen, M., Chate, V., Hininger-Favier, I., Laillet, B., Morio, B., Pieroni, G. and Dubouchaud, H. (2015) A 9-wk docosahexaenoic acid-enriched supplementation improves endurance exercise capacity and skeletal muscle mitochondrial function in adult rats. American Journal of Physiology Endocrinology and Metabolism, 310, 213-224.
Da Boit, M., Hunter, A. and Gray, S. (2017) Fit with good fat? The role of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on exercise performance. Metabolism, 66, 45-54
Corder, K., Newsham, K., McDaniel, J., Ezekiel, U. and Weiss, E. (2016) Effects of short-term docosahexaeonic acid supplementation on markers of inflammation after eccentric strength exercise in women. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 15, 176-183. Tsuchiya, Y., Yanagimoto, K., Nakazato, K., Hayamizu, K. and Ochi, E. (2016)
Eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids-rich fish oil supplementation attenuates strength loss and limited joint range of motion after eccentric contractions: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group trial. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 116, 1179-1188.
El-Badry, A., Graf, R. and Clavien, P. (2007) Omega 3–omega 6: what is right for the liver? Journal of hepatology, 47 (5), 718-725.