Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically the long-chain form from sources like fatty fish and fish oil, are the focus of a number of studies looking at their potential health benefits. Most research has been directed towards heart health and the potential role omega-3s from fish oil supplements might have for relieving symptoms of inflammatory diseases like arthritis – but could these fats that are abundant in fatty fish help you recover from a workout too?
Can Omega-3 Fatty Acids Reduce Symptoms of DOMS?
If you’ve ever done an intense resistance-training workout and felt sore the next day, you know that overloading your muscles beyond what they’re accustomed too leads to pain and stiffness a day or two later. This phenomenon, known as delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, is something most fitness buffs are all too familiar with. Chances are you’ve experienced a few bouts of soreness yourself, especially when you first began training. DOMS is caused by micro-tears to muscle fibers when they’re overworked and the inflammation that results, and is a normal, although painful, response to unaccustomed physical activity.
If someone were to take your blood after a tough workout, they would likely find elevated levels of inflammatory markers, suggesting that your muscle fibers were damaged from the stress of lifting. In response, inflammatory cells entered the area to try to “put out the fire.” Exercises that emphasize eccentric contractions, where the muscles lengthen against resistance, such as downhill running, plyometrics, and heavy resistance training, induce the most muscle damage and delayed-onset muscle soreness. It’s known that omega-3 fatty acids, from sources like fatty fish and fish oil, have anti-inflammatory properties – can they help cool the inflammation of DOMS?
What Does Research Show?
Researchers at the University of Florida asked a group of healthy, untrained males to do a resistance training routine that involved eccentric contractions, the type most damaging to muscle fibers. One group took a supplement containing long-chain omega 3s, in combination with vitamin E and flavonoids, for 14 days prior to the workout. The other group didn’t. After the session, both groups developed muscle soreness and stiffness, but markers for inflammation were lower in the guys who took the supplement containing omega-3s.
In another study, a group of healthy, young adults took an omega-3 supplement or a placebo 30 days prior to a heavy bout of eccentric exercise. The group that took the omega-3 fatty acids experienced less pain and soreness 72 and 96 hours after the workout compared to those who took a placebo.
How might omega-3 fatty acids reduce post-workout muscle soreness? One theory is that higher muscle concentrations of omega-3s increase muscle flexibility and elasticity, thereby reducing muscle cell damage during intense muscle contractions. Omega-3s are also known to reduce inflammation by blocking the release of chemicals involved in inflammation.
Can Omega-3s Enhance Muscle Growth?
Could there be another reason to eat omega-3-rich fatty fish if you resistance train? According to a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, omega-3s may aid in muscle growth by boosting muscle protein synthesis. Based on this study, omega-3 fatty acids activate the mTOR pathway, an anabolic signaling pathway that turns on the synthesis of new muscle proteins. The anabolic effects of omega-3s may have applications that go beyond resistance training.
A number of older adults suffer from sarcopenia, the age-related loss of muscle tissue. Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids could reduce the loss of lean muscle leading to a more favorable body composition, even for people who don’t lift weights. Omega-3s combined with resistance training could enhance body composition even more.
What about Strength Gains?
Can omega-3 fatty acids help you get stronger? One interesting study found an increase in grip strength of 0.48 kilograms and 0.43 kilograms in men with each additional serving of fatty fish they ate each week. Another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed older women who supplemented with two grams of fish oil a day experienced greater gains in strength in response to resistance training than those who didn’t take a fish oil supplement. Why might this be? One theory is that omega-3s might enhance the ability of muscle cells to contract by altering membrane fluidity.
What Are the Best Natural Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Fatty fish, like wild-caught salmon, is among the best sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, the type that offers the greatest health benefits. Although plant-based sources of omega-3s, like chia seeds, flaxseed, and walnuts, are readily available, they have a shorter chain length and may not offer the same health benefits as long-chain omega-3s. Your body can convert short-chain omega-3s to long-chain forms, but the process isn’t very efficient, so you’d have to eat lots of these foods to get the benefits.
What about fish? By eating 2 full servings of wild-caught salmon each week, you can get the advantages that long-chain omega-3s offer without taking a fish oil supplement. Don’t forget fish is an excellent source of protein to support a strength-building program. Avoid farm-raised salmon as studies show it contains higher levels of contaminants like PCBs and dioxins. Don’t be fooled by “Atlantic salmon,’ almost all of it is farm raised.
The Bottom Line
Many experts recommend making omega-3-rich fatty fish part of your diet, but consuming it several times a week may offer even greater benefits if you resistance train. The anti-inflammatory properties of these fats may reduce muscle soreness when you’ve worked too hard and provide an additional anabolic stimulus to help your muscles grow. Next time you visit the grocery store, make sure wild-caught salmon is on the list!
Today’s Dietician. “Speeding Recovery: Nutrition and Supplementation for Exercise”
Treating and Preventing DOMS. Johndavid Maes, and Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
J Sports Sci Med. 2014 Jan; 13(1): 151-156. Published online 2014 Jan 20.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 93.2 (2011): 402-412.
J Am Geriatr Soc, 2008. 56(1): p. 84-90.
Am J Clin Nutr February 2012 ajcn.021915.
- Nutr. November 1, 2005 vol. 135 no. 11 2639-2643.
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