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What Athletes Can Learn From Birds

What Athletes Can Learn From Birds

If you’ve ever marvelled at the miracle of bird migration, you might be interested to learn that omega-3s could be part of what enables this amazing wonder! 

Long distance migratory birds stock up on large amounts of omega-3 rich crustaceans, before they set off on a non-stop 4500km journey, flying over the sea without food or rest. Their main fuel during this non-stop journey is fat.  This high intake of omega-3 fatty acids helps to increase their production of fatty acid transport proteins in muscle cells. In simple terms, this makes it easier for them to use fat as a fuel source. This is important because you can make much more energy from a molecule of fatty acid (fat) than a molecule of glucose (carbohydrate). Using fat means they will have enough energy to make the long journey without refuelling.   

So what does this have to do with sports performance?

For some time now there has been increased interest in the effects of omega-3s in sport. And it’s little wonder. There are many good reasons to up your intake of omega-3s [Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) & Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)] if you’re regularly involved in sport. Not least the idea that a higher intake of omega-3s may make your body more efficient at using fats as a fuel source, which is particularly useful for endurance athletes.

Omega-6: omega-3 ratio is out of balance

Human beings have evolved to thrive on a diet that contains omega-3 and omega-6 fats in an equal ratio. However, a typical Western diet supplies a ratio that’s more like 10:1 – 20:1 in favour of omega-6. Omega-6 fats promote inflammation, whilst omega-3 fats have an anti-inflammatory effect. It's easy to see then, the negative effects that can happen when this ratio shifts out of balance. And this shift is a major factor underlying many of the common chronic diseases we see as a result of the typical Western diet. This shift is also bad news for athletes.   

High intensity exercise leads to increased production of free radicals, which promotes inflammation. When you add this to the pro-inflammatory effects of a typically high omega-6 intake, it’s easy to see the potential negative effects on health and sports performance too. Increasing intakes of omega-3s is a useful way to restore this balance. For the majority of sports and fitness enthusiasts, especially those at the leisure level, general guidelines should include omega-3 supplementation of about 1 to 2 g/day at a ratio of EPA:DHA of around 2:11.

Here’s how omega-3s may help to improve overall health and performance in exercise:

Anti-inflammatory - Help to counteract the increased inflammation that happens as a result of high intensity exercise

Energy - Support athletes’ ability to use both glucose and fats as a fuel source to produce energy.  This is particularly important for endurance athletes.

Recovery - May help to increase the rate of muscle protein synthesis and reduce recovery times

VO2 Max - Omega-3s may help to support increased VO2 max

Concentration - Support balanced mood and concentration – key factors in determining sports performance

How to get more omega-3s into your diet:

 • Increase your intake of oily fish, nuts, seeds and their oils. Aim for 1-2 servings of oily fish per week.

 • In addition, take a daily supplement of omega-3 fish oil. Make sure the oil you choose is pure and stable as many are rancid and contaminated with heavy metals and PCBs and would do you more harm than good. 

References:
1. Simopoulos AP, Omega 3 fatty acids and athletics.  Curr Sports Med Rep. 2007 Jul; 6 (4) 230-6

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