A well-oiled machine?

Sore muscles and peak athletic performance do not mix. Performance Dietitian at Axis Sports Medicine Dane Baker was part of a research team investigating the addition of fish oil to elite rugby players recovery drinks. They supplemented Super Rugby players twice daily with a protein drink containing fish oil (1546 mg of omega-3 PUFA; 551 mg EPA and 551 mg DHA) for 35 days during pre-season, in the lead up to competition. This resulted in an attenuation of lower body muscle soreness, reduced fatigue, and better-maintained countermovement jump performance (a measure of lower-body power). Similar findings have also been reported in elite soccer and in controlled laboratory settings, where beneficial effects of fish oil supplementation have been demonstrated on the perception of muscle soreness following intense eccentric exercise (Corder et al., 2016; Tsuchiya et al., 2016; Jouris et al., 2011; Lembke et al., 2014; Tinsley et al., 2016).

Lead Author Dr Katherine Black, of the Department of Human Nutrition, at The University of Otago, says “Muscle soreness can have severe consequences for competitive performance, so if we can help to reduce soreness then we can help to improve performance.”

How does it work?

It is postulated that muscle soreness is associated with biochemical muscle damage and free radical damage (Lewis et al., 2012). The muscle damage that occurs during exercise results in an inflammatory response, which may contribute to the sensation of soreness and potentially a decrement in performance (Jakeman, Lambrick, Wooley, Babraj, & Faulkner, 2017). Therefore, it is possible that the beneficial effects seen with fish oil supplementation were mediated, at least in part, by attenuating the inflammatory response to exercise which in turn can attenuate muscle soreness (Lenn et al., 2002).

Alternatively, adding fish oil to a protein-based drink may attenuate muscle soreness by protecting the structural integrity of the muscle cell from damage. It has been demonstrated that following eccentric exercise there is a lower rise in plasma creatine kinase concentrations (a marker of cell damage) with the addition of fish oil to a protein-based supplement (Philpott, 2018). This data indicates a reduced leakage of creatine kinase from the muscle cell into circulation following fish oil ingestion. Hence, the exact mechanism for fish oil ingestion reducing muscle soreness remains unclear. However, evidence for beneficial effects in the exercise setting are emerging.

Although supplements are commonly used in research studies, the benefits can also be obtained from whole foods, and it should be remembered training schedules in these studies are very different from the general population.

Axis Sports Medicine Performance Dietitian Dane Baker explains that muscle damage and accompanied muscle soreness is a natural and important response to the recovery process. However, in certain situations where time is inadequate between bouts of exercise and where performance is of most importance, dietary interventions that can attenuate muscle soreness can be a valuable performance enhancer. From what we currently understand from the research, using fish oil supplements in a one-off manner won’t get you the same results as seen in our study. Omega 3 fatty acids can take up to 4 weeks to get incorporated into the cell membrane to then potentially influence the inflammatory response. Individuals should start by incorporating fatty fish into their diet 3x per week. Then, if they are looking to impact the inflammatory response in the muscle, they should choose a high-quality fish oil supplement or simply eat more fatty fish sources to reach the average intake of 2g per day of omega 3 fatty acids, which is recognised in the literature as the dose required to impact on inflammation (Calder, 2015).

Obviously, fish oil supplements do not fit the diets of all; there are some plant-based alternatives for these essential fatty acids. However, plant-based omega 3 sources are far less efficient than sources fatty fish for their conversion to EPA and DHA (Burdge., et al 2005). In situations where higher doses of EPA and DHA are desired for those on a plant-based diet Microalgae-oil based supplements be shown to increase blood EPA and DHA levels (Conquer., et al 1996).  

Vegetarian options

  1. Walnuts
  2. Flaxseed oil
  3. Chia seeds