Antioxidant use and the athlete: should you or shouldn’t you?

There is nothing more disappointing than doing everything you possibly can to prepare for an event… and then the week before you wake up with a scratchy throat. Panic sets in. WTF?! You’ve been diligent about rugging up before heading out for your training. You’ve gotten extremely adept at opening the fridge in your staffroom with your elbow, and the unexpected benefit of not touching the escalator handrail is that your balance has improved exponentially. All of that, along with religiously popping two of those yummy fizzy orange lollies masquerading as vitamin C tablets daily to fight those pesky free radicals that your body is subjected to week in, week out as part of your normal training load. Yet this feels like the beginning of a worrying week pre-race that could derail what was looking like a PB race.

The problem with being an athlete is that you’re constantly teetering on the edge of becoming sick – when you add training on top of an already busy life load, you run the risk of becoming run down and, for some, chronically so. It must be said, though, that athletes are often the least likely to come down with the winter ills. Regular training affords us positive adaptations in cardiovascular, skeletal muscle and respiratory systems, which benefit both everyday wellbeing and prevent against metabolic diseases.  However, despite the undeniable health benefits, exercise increases the production of free radicals in your body, and in excess these may promote increased oxidative stress and damage in the DNA structure. This leads to impaired skeletal tissue function and increased muscle pain, affecting our ability to train and thus perform. Not to mention looking about 81 years old when you’re barely 50. Hmm… there are definite downsides to training. In order to combat this, many athletes and sports professionals have a regular regime of antioxidant supplements (such as vitamin C) they take daily as part of their overall training strategy.

While there can be benefits with taking additional supplements, there are questions around the usefulness of these for athletes. Recently it’s been established that, contrary to strengthening our resilience against illness, we may be doing ourselves a disservice, as physical activity itself causes adaptations in the tissue and increases the expression of receptors that are responsible for producing our internal antioxidant defenses. This stress is important to help us become stronger for the next session, and thus become fitter (termed mitohormesis.)  A recent study investigating this concept also found that regardless of training status, supplementing with antioxidants blunted the ability of exercise to increase insulin sensitivity, and the release of adinopectin, a hormone with a role in blood glucose regulation and fatty acid oxidation.

Does this mean, then, that you should throw away your vitamin C tablets? Actually – to my mind, no. There is a time and place for additional antioxidant supplementation and a blanket approach, taken as an insurance to ward off ills is not the answer. In the literature, there are questions around the use of antioxidants and, like a lot of scientific trials involving humans, this stems from methodological differences, alongside individual differences which garner different results. Many studies didn’t control for overall diet, the training status of the participants differed, along with the definition of ‘endurance’ – I know that many people would view a definition of ‘training 4-5 x per week for up to 60 minutes at a time’ does not an endurance athlete make. The active ingredient in the supplement along with the way it is formulated can also affect the absorption and thus its effectiveness.

There are times in your training cycle where it’s beneficial to expose your body to the adaptive effects of training – as you’re building up your base your body is undergoing many of these, learning to go longer, lift heavier, potentially go faster. This is not the time to take the supplement, as your main goal is to become a better athlete through these changes. In the lead up to the race, however, the adaptive phase is done. Your main concern is getting to the start line in as good a condition as possible. Consider taking a supplement in the week leading up to the event to protect your antioixidant status (which will undoubtedly give you a psychological boost). In addition, it appears that particularly after an event, antioxidant status is reduced (which makes sense, given the stress that racing places on the body) and ensuring a nutrient rich diet with additional supplementation makes sense in the few days afterwards. There are no guidelines around dosage in the literature, but a supplement in a chelated form (along with an amino acid, perhaps powdered form) will help absorption of a vitamin C supplement.

Of course, throughout your normal diet, however, there is much more benefit to take on board these nutrients in their natural state. Vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that work as antioxidants in the body work in a synergy that can’t be emulated by a pill. While there is increasing interest in the use of ‘functional foods’ such as gogi berries, black tart cherry juice, beetroot juice and the like, your antioxidant status is enhanced through consuming an abundance of nutrient-dense foods that provide this synergy, and there are plenty of studies to show this.

In addition to the numerous vegetable and fruit sources of these constituents, animal based foods are more nutrient dense with regards to cofactors responsible for decreasing oxidative stress in the body. Free range eggs, naturally occurring fats, fish, meat, all contribute either antioxidants themselves (such as co-enzyme q 10 and glycine) or provide the proteins necessary to build our body’s own antioxidant defense. It goes without saying that removing seed oils and processed foods which contribute to the omega-6 load of our diet (thus promoting inflammation) is an important factor here.

Of course, as an athlete, diet is just one factor that contributes to your ability to fight off infection. If you’re not getting adequate sleep, ensuring your training sessions include enough recovery to enable your body to adapt to the training stress, and allowing some downtime in every day life outside of training to just relax, then your risk of coming down with a cold or flu at this time of year will exponentially increase. That said and done, if you do feel the beginnings of a scratchy throat? One of the best things you can do is take a tonic. Check out this below that Chris Kresser talked about. Sounds potent, but it does the trick for him. Many people swear by ginger, manuka honey and lemon to help ward off colds, and ginger is well known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties as is manuka honey.

(over to Chris for the last word…)

“Juice 1 kg pf ginger in a juicer. And then you put 3 to 4 tablespoons of ginger in a cup with the juice of one lemon and some honey, like a couple of teaspoons or a tablespoon of honey, and you sip on that all day.  You’ll probably need to make it a couple more times throughout the day, but you just keep sipping it throughout the whole day.  It’s really intense, that much fresh ginger juice.  You’ll really understand when people say that ginger is spicy when you drink that!  You sprinkle a tiny bit of cayenne pepper, like a pinch of it, too.  That really helps a lot.  The fresh ginger is antiviral, and it actually prevents the adhesion of the virus to the upper respiratory mucosa.  If you do it right at the beginning of getting sick, it can really prevent you from getting sick at all. Taken 3-5 times a day. That’s enough for two people over 1.5 days, might make 2-3 batches.”