You’ve probably heard of omega-3s – whether it’s in the nutrition news headlines or on the bottles that line the shelves of the supplement aisle. You have probably heard that they are good for you – and you can even take them daily – but there is so much more to this “good fat” than you might know.

In fact, not only do omega-3s come in pill form, but they are also found in many foods that you eat regularly. And their anti-inflammatory properties can bring some unique benefits to us runners.

To find out exactly what omega-3s are and how they can benefit your performance, we ran the research through and included Kelly Jones MS, RD – a sports dieter – and Harry B. Rice, Ph.D. – Vice President for Regulation and Scientific Affairs at the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3 Fatty Acids (GOED) – to explain everything you need to know.

What are omega-3 fatty acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of unsaturated fatty acid that is sometimes referred to as “good fat” because of its many health benefits. There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Aside from hard-to-spell names, getting these types of omega-3 fatty acids from foods is pretty easy.

ALA is an essential fatty acid, which means the body can’t make it naturally, so you must get it from your diet. “Plant foods like walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seeds provide us with omega-3 ALA,” says Jones. It’s also found in soybeans, hemp seeds, and vegetable oils (such as canola oil). Most Americans eat a lot of ALA every day.

DHA and EPA are not essential as the body can make both, but only in minimal amounts. The best ways to get EPA and DHA are through foods like fish, shellfish, seaweed, seaweed, and supplements. “The researchers have not yet established how much EPA and DHA the body can convert from ALA. If someone is vegan, it is recommended that they use seaweed oil for higher quality sources, ”adds Jones.

There’s no hard and fast recommendation for the amount of omega-3 fatty acids you should have in a day, but the National Institute of Health recommends 1.1 grams of ALA for women and 1.6 grams of ALA for men. The GOED suggests taking 500 milligrams of EPA and DHA per day for general health.

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Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are best known for their anti-inflammatory properties. Since chronic inflammation is linked to serious illness, omega-3 fatty acids are under constant scrutiny for their potential ability to prevent and treat many diseases. “When it comes to omega-3s, the main benefits are EPA and DHA, not ALA,” says Rice. And make no mistake, there are many benefits associated with getting enough omega-3s in your diet.

The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice a week to build a healthy heart. In fact, evidence suggests that consuming more omega-3 fatty acids from fish or fish oil supplements may lower the death rate from cardiac events and possibly stroke. In addition, omega-3s have been linked to lowering triglycerides and blood pressure – both of which are markers of overall heart health.

The researchers are also studying the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on cancer prevention and treatment. Some evidence suggests that omega-3 supplementation could reduce the incidence of skin cancer without melanoma, and other research recommends omega-3 intake because of its anti-inflammatory properties and beneficial effects on the immune system in breast cancer patients. Omega-3 intake is also seen as a possible treatment for depression and anxiety.

Can Omega-3 Fatty Acids Improve Your Performance?

With the numerous health benefits of this nutrient, comes a natural question: can it also help me run faster and stronger? “Since running is a sport that puts additional strain on the heart, lungs and joints, inadequate intake of omega-3 EPA can contribute to decreased recovery of these systems,” says Jones.

In other words, a shortage can affect your mileage. How exactly an omega-3 fatty acid supplement will help you is another question. While there is limited research into the effects of omega-3s in exercise populations, some potential benefits are still being explored, including:

1. Oxygen uptake

In a small study of elite cyclists, the athletes were given 1.3 grams of omega-3 twice a day for three weeks. The researchers found that this supplement caused increased levels of nitric oxide in the blood and increased oxygen uptake, which meant the athletes were better able to deliver oxygen to the muscles for use during exercise and, consequently, improve performance.

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2. Sore muscles

One of the key roles of omega-3 fatty acids is increasing the sensitivity of your muscles to protein supplements. With this in mind, researchers have investigated the benefits of combining omega-3 fatty acids and protein in a post-workout supplement to reduce muscle soreness.

One study of rugby players showed a moderate value and another study of soccer players showed similar results. If you are on the injury bench, you may also want to keep an eye on your omega-3 fatty acids. A study recently published in the FASEB Journal suggests that taking a break from your exercise routine can help prevent muscle wasting.

However, experts believe the jury is still ignorant of this possible role for omega-3 fatty acids. “While EPA / DHA’s potential for reducing muscle soreness is fascinating, the results obtained so far have not been consistent,” says Rice. “So I don’t see the benefits of EPA / DHA in reducing muscle soreness as compelling.”

3. asthma

Exercise-related bronchoconstriction – also known as asthma – is associated with swelling of the airways. Because omega-3s reduce inflammation, they are being studied for their potential role in the treatment of exercise-induced asthma. “Asthmatics can see benefits from omega-3s, as studies have shown that those individuals have reduced inflammatory markers when they consume 3.2 grams of EPA and 2 grams of DHA daily for three weeks,” says Jones.

Should You Take an Omega-3 Supplement?

There seem to be significant benefits in getting enough omega-3s in your diet with omega-3-rich foods like walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds, fish and shellfish (think salmon, lake trout, mackerel, cod), herring , Sardines, anchovies, and oysters) and seaweed) so you may not have to take a huge pill every day.

“If a runner is currently following the recommendation to eat two servings of oily fish a week, they may be less likely to respond to the potential benefits of a fish oil supplement than a runner who rarely consumes oily fish,” says Jones.

Unfortunately, only about a third of Americans meet the weekly fish recommendations. In this case, Rice suggests taking an omega-3 supplement daily to reap the benefits. As mentioned earlier, the general recommendation for a healthy person is 500 mg per day. If you have any medical condition, it is worth talking to your doctor before adding any supplements to your routine or taking a higher dose. Remember, the supplement industry is not regulated. So, look for an option that contains EPA and DHA and is from reputable brands that have undergone third-party testing. NSF International tests supplements for purity and quality, and you can check their website for brands that meet their criteria.

Registered dietitian
Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD is a New York City-based nutritionist, food and nutrition writer, national spokesperson, and owner of Nutrition a la Natalie, a sports nutrition practice.

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