Physiology and Nutrition: Do Antioxidants hinder Endurance Performance?

supplementsIf you were to open most athletes’ kitchen cabinet, you’ll probably find a shelf of supplements: the typical sports nutrition cache of electrolyte drinks, bars, recovery drinks, and most often an array of vitamins/supplements purported to maximize workouts, speed recovery, and minimize downtime and the risk of injury.  Most of us are aware that the FDA doesn’t tightly regulate supplements, and often the effects are over-exaggerated or lacking scientific merit. Recently the efficacy of vitamin supplementation has come under scientific scrutiny, in particular antioxidants.

The blurred line comes from the existing mentality “what is good in small doses must be great in large quantities”.

For example, there is strong epidemiological data to suggest that a diet rich in foods that are naturally high in antioxidants is associated with better health outcomes. But when using supplements, the data shifts- individuals supplementing with high dose antioxidants actually have worse health outcomes.

“But I’m an athlete and my body experiences a significantly greater exposure to oxidation because of my training. I need supplements! I can’t eat 10 pounds of kale a day….” you say. Hold on, let’s examine what oxidation in the body actually is…

The powerhouse of the cells are cellular organelles called mitochondria, where the body converts food to energy, a process that requires oxygen, thus it’s called oxidation. As endurance athletes, we know the importance of oxygen for steady-state power output (aerobic pathway) but the metabolites leftover from the conversion of food to fuel have the potential to do cellular damage in the form of “reactive oxygen species” or ROS.  Cumulative damage of ROS is referred to as “oxidative stress” and is generally considered as one of the major factors leading to DNA damage. This is where antioxidants come into play. Antioxidants work to eliminate oxidative stress by neutralizing ROS as they develop, preventing cell damage.  Here is the key concept: the body has a series of complex systems to produce its own natural antioxidants to neutralize specific ROS – processes which are too critical and intricate to rely solely on the ingestion of antioxidants.

Exercise, especially that of long duration or high intensity, and its consequent tissue injuries are known to increase ROS production in mitochondria. To overcome this increased ROS production, the body must experience the stress and boost its antioxidant capacity (remember, these are complex systems, and there is not just one component that is increased but a series of feedback mechanisms) naturally.  When an athlete increases their antioxidant intake through supplementation, the body doesn’t fully adapt to increase these systems as the sudden, high dose of antioxidant interferes with the natural adaptation process. The “backlash” can be more harmful than neutral. Reviewing  key studies on the effects of antioxidant supplements on exercise-induced muscle damage are telling:  Measurement of muscle damage in the bloodstream — enzymes like creatine kinase, which are an indicator of cell rupture— shows no strong evidence to support supplementation as having any meaningful effect on muscle damage. What’s more concerning is that some studies have suggested that supplements may induce muscle injury and actually delay recovery.

The acute recovery period is where we find the most concerning data. Antioxidant supplements seem to be working against the beneficial effects of exercise:

  • Promoting, rather than reducing, oxidative stress: In some cases, supplements appear to raise indicators of inflammation, rather than reduce them.
  • Reducing the ability to adapt to exercise-induced oxidative stress: Cells will naturally adapt to increases in ROS by upregulating their natural enzymatic feedback systems. Supplements have been shown to actually inhibit adaptation.
  • Affecting physiologic processes like muscle contraction and insulin sensitivity: Supplementation, by affecting the concentration of ROS, may interfere with muscle function and recovery from the effects of exercise. Several recent studies identified that supplementation with vitamins E and C inhibited the usual insulin-sensitizing effects of exercise. The result: inhibited glycogen recovery and reduced muscle fiber repair.

So, as an endurance athlete, you’re saying I don’t need any supplements, in fact they could be harmful to getting fitter and faster?

The short answer is “Yes”. In light of what we know about antioxidants and exercise, the trend in the data is strongly suggestive of zero benefit, at best, with the real possibility that there may be negative consequences to supplementation.  We aren’t as smart as nature. Our bodies need the chance to understand and overcome stress (the whole concept behind training and adaptation); look to use real food as the functional components to the intricate feedback systems and leave the bottle of supplements on the shelf.

So, I can eat my antioxidants in food, just not in supplements?

Not right away. No berries or similarly antioxidant rich foods immediately after exercise. Wait 4-5 hours post exercise once the acute recovery period is over. Sorry smoothie lovers.


Dr Stacy Sims cofounder of OSMO and Bikerumor contributorStacy Sims, MSc, PhD, served as an exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist at Stanford University specializing in recovery and nutritional adaptations for health, body composition, and maximizing performance. During the past decade she has worked as an environmental physiologist and nutrition specialist for top professional cyclists and triathletes, ultra-endurance athletes, the Garmin/Slipstream Pro Cycling Team, USA Cycling Olympic Team (BMX and women’s track cycling), Team Tibco, Flying Lizard Motorsports, and Team Leopard-Trek, among others. She competes as a Cat 1 road cyclist and elite XTerra triathlete and is co-founder of OSMO Nutrition.

Recommended reading:

  1. Peternile and Coombes: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22060178
  2. Paulsen et al: http://jp.physoc.org/content/early/2014/01/31/jphysiol.2013.267419.abstract
  3. Gliemann et al: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23878368
  4. Paik et al: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=10.1016%2Fj.bbrc.2009.03.135
  5. Strobel et al: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=10.1249%2FMSS.0b013e318203afa3

Comments

War Chad - 03/28/14 - 7:51pm

So what you’re saying is, smoke weed every day?

fried spuds - 03/28/14 - 11:44pm

Potato chips ftw.

Justus Gunther - 03/29/14 - 2:29am

Another great post. I’m really appreciating these evidence based articles, they are a nice change from the usually marketing mumbo jumbo that saturates the cycling world. Keep it up!

A - 03/29/14 - 10:19am

Finally we are being told NOT to buy something! Very helpful!

Tod - 03/29/14 - 10:55am

+1 Great article–thanks Bike Rumor!

Igor - 03/29/14 - 3:37pm

Bikerumor. These are the kind of articles I really like as well. So +1 from my side as well and keep em coming. Cheers

Devin - 03/30/14 - 12:11pm

What vitamins do you recommend then?

tom - 03/30/14 - 12:26pm

One of the best articles on nutrition ever published on a cycling site. Totally agree with Justus. Thank you for not telling us to eat a “balanced diet” of “heart healthy whole grains”

johnV - 03/30/14 - 11:00pm

Perhaps having antioxidants compartmentalized in tissue beforehand is the way to go. This might be supplementing anywhere from 4-5 hours after exercise to the morning of.

chlorinated - 03/31/14 - 3:05pm

Devin – I think the key concept to take away from this article, and many like it, is that we DO NOT need supplements to be healthy. As athletes, we may need more calories, proteins, vitamins, minerals, carbs, etc than the typical coach potato, but this is something we can do for ourselves through REAL food. Incorporate a wide variety of fresh veggies, fruits, whole grains and protein sources (animal or vegan) and you don’t need any assistance from pills or other man-made supplements.

Thanks to BR for a great article about the science behind the growing trend of diet supplementation. One other thing to consider is that most (if not all) of these supplements are not regulated through the FDA and a therefore not subjected to the same scrutiny or purity standards. If you work with a reputable company, I believe they have distinct interest in producing a high-quality product for their consumers, but it is still something to consider.

Stacy - 03/31/14 - 6:27pm

Hey Devin-
Aside from vitamin D3, I don’t recommend vitamins unless you have a specific deficiency. Eating a wide range of fresh foods is the way to go. In the processed world, fortified breakfast cereal is actually a good way of getting iron. (I know, I said the word “processed!”.. there is a time and a place for a few processed food products!).

Cheers- Stac

CuJo - 03/31/14 - 7:56pm

There is more than one way to make a smoothie Stacy. There are plenty of non-antioxidant fruits to make a great recovery smoothie. I have looked at this research and switched my blueberry-vanilla smoothie to a choc-pb-banana smoothie. Frozen bananas are delicious if your blender can handle it. (I have a blendtec)

Marcos - 03/31/14 - 10:24pm

Not even a pos ride chocolate milk?

Tks.

Mark - 04/01/14 - 3:08am

There are no (significant quantities) of anti-oxidants in chocolate milk. The proteins in the chocolate milk should help your body to absorb the carbohydrates faster, a completely different process.

Ds - 04/01/14 - 8:27am

Thanks for article.

@Marcos and Mark : You cannot digest nutriments/minerals of chocolate when it is blended with milk. Only eat true dark chocolate to get its benefits. Surprising !

JP - 04/01/14 - 6:40pm

Great article Stacy, and props for your work with Osmo!

I generally agree with the assessment that there is evidence that antioxidants may paradoxically prevent muscle adaptation by preventing hormesis. I believe that there has also been a good bit of research into the performance- (particularly endurance-) enhancing effects of antioxidants such as Astaxanthin. Might it make sense to recommend abstinence from antioxidant supplements during training (for maximum excercise-induced adaptation) while also encouraging their use for a race or other athletic event in order to maximize performance?

Stacy - 04/01/14 - 11:47pm

JP-
Thanks! Possible… but I’m still looking for definitive MOA answers in the human performance literature. Some of the studies that state improved performance had many cofounding variables that could also aid performance; then the contradictory studies still don’t examine the MOA, just state that there was no difference between astaxanthin and placebo.

Greg - 04/08/14 - 6:56pm

Stacy,

The studies on supplements are now looking clear. But I’m curious about the last line, referring to whole foods. There is some research that shows antioxidants in food can be helpful with oxidative stress:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15023594

Are you just assuming that the antioxidants in food have the same effects over the same time windows as the supplements used in the studies? Or are there other studies you don’t reference that specifically deal with food?

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