Free radicals and antioxidants are everywhere. Should I Care?
Probably there are no terms related to diet and health mentioned so often in recent years as free radicals and antioxidants. From commercials, scientific articles, to TV shows, antioxidants stand out as vital substances with numerous positive effects on our health as they neutralize free radicals. But what are they and what is their connection with endurance sports?
Let's start with free radicals. They are the products of chemical processes, such as cellular metabolism, and are necessary for the body's defense system, which uspes them to fight pathogens like bacteria and viruses. But as the excess of everything is less than ideal, their overproduction can be harmful and cause oxidative stress.
Free radicals are unstable molecules that pair with important cellular components like proteins, lipids, DNA, etc. and consequently damage them. As you may assume, it is not good to "play" with cellular structures, especially if DNA is involved. These damages caused by oxidative stress are associated with severe chronic diseases and accelerating aging. Free radicals are generated from endogenous or exogenous sources, such as during exercise or in response to environmental factors like exposure to pesticides, air pollution, etc.
Antioxidants act as free radical scavengers and neutralize them. Endogenous antioxidants produced by our bodies are capable of counteracting free radicals action and initiating molecular mechanisms capable of repairing the damage caused. Exogenous antioxidants are vitamins and antioxidants introduced with your diet (fruit, vegetables, and whole plant-based foods). Examples of antioxidants include vitamins C, A and E, selenium, zinc, and carotenoids, such as beta-carotene.
So what is the relationship between free radicals and endurance sports?
How often have you experienced that post-exercise sensation of fatigue that takes over your body after the adrenalin drops down?
During endurance training, your body produces more free radicals in the contracting skeletal muscles. This overproduction contributes to oxidative
damage to muscle lipids and proteins, causing muscle fatigue and inflammation.
Also, the production of free radicals in muscles is proportional to the exercise duration and intensity. One extensive and relevant study has shown a significant increase in oxidative stress and the following reduction of antioxidants. This is especially true in high-intensity, short-duration triathlon compared to long-distance and low-intensity triathlon in which antioxidants have decreased without any noteworthy impact on oxidative stress. On the other hand, an interesting randomized controlled trial suggested that the administration of tart cherry juice for eight days (super-packed with antioxidants) reduced exercise-induced muscle damage symptoms and inflammation levels in endurance athletes who participated in a strenuous endurance race. Participants also recovered muscle strength much quicker than the placebo group.
Do I need antioxidant supplementation?
This means that the more antioxidants you consume through your diet, the better. It will help you to recover faster by reducing the inflammation.
Low levels of free radicals in skeletal muscles are required to reach the ideal force production, but this does not mean that you have to reach out for antioxidant supplementation. There is no need to use supplements, as a well-planned, balanced diet can fill nutritional gaps if any. There is no reliable evidence that antioxidant supplementation is necessary if you consume a well-balanced diet.
Regular endurance training boosts your defense system!
Your body has its defense system against free radicals, including the activation of endogenous antioxidants capable of neutralizing them. Regular endurance training boosts this defense system by activating more endogenous antioxidants in muscle fibers and consequently reduces exercise-mediated muscle damage and inflammation. Some researchers think endurance training generates large amounts of free radicals that your body cannot handle. But several long-term studies have confirmed that your defense system adapts over time, making the formation of oxidative damage minimal or even non-existent. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone to achieve better results is not bad, as it probably won't cause irreversible damage to your cells and tissues.
But this also means that all endurance athletes, especially those involved in high-intensity short-duration training, require a precise nutritional evaluation and a plan for peak athletic performance.
Food is fuel, but the key is in planning and food combining. At Trainingmeals.org, we create meals packed with nutrients and antioxidants, which can reduce exercise-mediated muscle damage and protect your cells from oxidative stress. Well-balanced meals, individually-tailored, will allow you to train harder, recover faster, and accomplish your goals with ease.
Oxidative Stress and Antioxidant Defense
The importance of antioxidants plays a role in cellular response against oxidative/nitrosative stress: current state
Free Radicals, Antioxidants in Disease and Health
The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide
Free radicals, antioxidants, and functional foods: Impact on human health
Efficacy of tart cherry juice in reducing muscle pain during running: a randomized controlled trial