If you’ve ever considered popping a pill of omega 3s, it’s probably been for your heart. After all, the American Heart Association says that the good-for-you fatty acids can reduce triglyceride levels, keep your arteries clear, and ward off irregular heartbeats.
And while no athlete is hitting a new PR without a healthy heart, the in-the-gym, on-the-field benefits of omega 3s go so much further. Omega 3s can not only speed your workout recovery, boost your gains, and help you hit new athletic goals, but are also necessary for cardiovascular, brain, joint, eye and skin health.
The thing is, your body can’t make omega 3 fatty acids on its own. It depends on your diet for those, and even if you are making an effort to eat lots of fish, avocados, and nuts, you might be falling short of your goals.
Omega 3s come in three types: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Long-chain fatty acids, EPA and DHA, are found in fish, fish oil supplements, and algae extract. The short-chain form, ALA, is found in plant sources like nuts, flax seed, chia seeds, avocado, and olive oil.
Your body can only use the long-chain omega 3s, though. So, to make use of other forms, it converts ALA into EPA and then into DHA. Unfortunately, this process is anything but efficient. In men, only about 5 percent of the ALA consumed converts into EPA and less than 1 percent of EPA converts into DHA, says Jim White, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios. “So sole use of this process is not the ideal way to elevate EPA and DHA in your body,” he says. To get enough EPA and DHA—many experts recommend 500 to 1,000 mg per day—you would need to eat at least two servings of fatty fish like salmon, tuna, or mackerel each week. Not to mention the requisite nuts, seeds, and heart-healthy oils to hit your ALA requirements. Many guys, even the healthier ones out there, don’t.
That’s where omega 3 supplements come in. Read on to learn how omega 3 supplements, stocked with EPA and DHA, can boost your athletic performance.
1. They’ll Speed Your Exercise Recovery
After tough training sessions, your muscles are left riddled with microscopic tears; tears that, when healed, will make you stronger, bigger, and faster. Omega 3s are powerful anti-inflammatory compounds that help make that recovery process happen, says Kari Ikemoto, R.D., a registered dietitian with HealthCare Partners in California.
2. They’ll Make You Stronger
You’ll still have to pump some iron to score those 20-inch biceps you’ve been vying for, but omega 3s may help things along. Besides decreasing muscle breakdown, omega 3 fatty acids increase protein synthesis—the process in which your muscles transform the protein you eat into the protein in your biceps, Ikemoto says. For instance, in a 2011 study of healthy men and women, Washington University researchers found that omega 3s increased the subjects’ muscle-building response to insulin and amino acids, both of which are released in the body during exercise.
3. They’ll Make DOMS a Thing of the Past
Another benefit of omega 3s’ inflammation-fighting ways is its ability to nix DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness.) You know, the ache that leaves you limping for two days after you hit the squat rack. In one Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine study, omega 3 supplementation markedly reduced men’s levels of perceived pain and their range of motion 48 hours post exercise.
4. They’ll Boost Your Reaction Time
The human brain is nearly 60 percent fat, so it’s no shocker that omega 3 fatty acids help the heap of wrinkly fat do its thing. The fatty acids have been shown to improve cognitive functioning, and play a critical role in both visual processing and signaling, according to research out of Taiwan. Meanwhile, they are vital components of nerve endings, neurons, and muscle membranes, says sports dietitian Lisa Dorfman, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., an ambassador with American Pistachio Growers. For instance, in one Journal of Sports Science & Medicine study, soccer players dramatically improved their reaction time with just four weeks of fish oil (read: DHA and EPA) supplementation.
5. They’ll Reduce Your Risk of Overuse Injuries
Apart from speeding exercise recovery, omega 3s fend off workout-ending injuries by preventing tissue degradation, easing inflammation, boosting blood and oxygen flow to muscles, increasing range of motion, and relieving joint tenderness, Dorfman says.
6. They’ll Make Your Muscles Work Better
By helping signals get from one cell to another ASAP, the omega 3s in your body’s nerve endings, neurons, and muscle membranes direct your body’s overall neuromuscular function. In a 2015 Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition study of male athletes, supplementation with a DHA and EPA led to greater increases in neuromuscular function (they increased thigh function by 20 percent!), and far less muscle fatigue.
7. They’ll Keep You Light on Your Feet
Omega 3 fatty acids can help you burn any excess fat weighing down your athletic gains. In one Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition study, researchers found that daily omega 3 fish oil supplementation significantly decreased adults’ fat mass in just six weeks. Ikemoto explains this is because having adequate levels of omega 3s allows your body to better burn fat for energy while exercising. Bonus: It also means you don’t burn as much muscle when you’re pounding the pavement.
8. They’ll Make Your Workouts Feel Easier
Part of omega 3s’ heart-health benefit is that they decrease heart rate and the amount of oxygen your body burns through every minute, Ikemoto says. On game day, that’s huge. It means that, during every minute of exercise, your body needs less oxygen than does your competitor. It takes less energy to run a marathon, kick a goal, or make a tackle, she says.
9. They’ll Keep Your Bones from Snapping
If you’re into contact sports like football, soccer, or rugby, broken bones are a real concern. Luckily, research published in Current Pharmaceutical Design suggests that omega 3s work to prevent brittle bones. Researchers believe the fatty acids may increase your body’s level of calcium absorption and mediate bone growth.
10. They’ll Fight Exercise-Induced Asthma
By reducing inflammation, omega 3s can make a big difference in the life of asthma sufferers, Dorfman says. For instance, in a 2013 Respiratory Medicine study, omega 3 supplementation drastically improved lung function and reduced airway inflammation in people who regularly suffer exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (aka exercise-induced asthma.)