Antioxidants or Antibenefits? Why Free Radicals are the unsung hero for athletes

‘Antioxidants’ is a word we see smattered all over breakfast cereal and juice packaging, but new research is telling us that athletes might need to lay off the goji berry extract if they want the most out of their training.

antioxidantsImage Credit: PracticalCures.com

The goodies

Antioxidants have received a more than decent wrap from the food and supplements industry. They’re talked up as being able to help with all kinds of medical conditions, from helping with eye-sight and joint function, to preventing Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.  This hype is great for the companies selling products rich in antioxidants, but it pays to know a little about just what antioxidants are and how they work before you buy a few hundred punnets of blueberries.

The baddies

Every hero needs a villain, and in this tale the villains are a type of free radical known as reactive oxygen species. Reactive oxygen species oxidise stuff, this is bad. Antioxidants antioxidize stuff, this is good.

The story should be straightforward, more heroes and less villains and the greater good prevails? Not quite, like any good superhero story this one has a twist… When it comes to exercise our radical villains play an important role, just enough to make you think twice about whether to barrack for them or the hero.

free radical‘Free Radical’ by Kelly Frew via Flickr

What happens when you train?

Radicals build up within the muscle during intense exercise. Basically, the more oxygen consumed by the muscle, the more oxidative stress from reactive oxygen species (radicals). The stress caused from the radicals then causes damage to the muscle. Now this damage isn’t exactly making our villain sound any more heroic, however, these small amounts of damage are crucial for athletes to see the benefits from their training.

Free Radicals are actually pretty radical

The presence of these radicals causes the release of signals within the muscle telling the muscle to repair itself and better prepare for future oxidative attacks. Think of it like a bunch of bad guys attacking a city. The bad guys don’t do enough to destroy the city completely, the city rallies together, fixes the broken buildings and builds some better walls to defend against the next attack.

Free Radicals do a little damage to the muscle during training so the muscle can repair and become better equipped for the main competition.

Castle.jpgImage Credit: Destinations Journey via Flickr

So, radicals aren’t all bad, but what’s wrong with antioxidants?

If there’s too many heroes around, the villains never make it to the city. This is fine if you’re happy in a small town that will never face attack. But if you’re an athlete you’re striving for a big, powerful fortress that can cope with anything. If the muscle never faces oxidative stress then there is nothing to promote repair and improvement. In the presence of too many antioxidants all that hard training could be going to waste!

I just ate a cranberry; will I have any muscle left by tomorrow?

As is the case with almost all nutrients in the diet: moderation is key. There is still a long list of benefits associated with antioxidants. This new research suggests for athletes to get the most out of their sessions it may be best to avoid overdoing the vitamin supplements and go easy on the goji berries in your post-workout smoothie.

goji berriesGoji Berries. Image Credit: Leslie Degner via Flickr

Further reading:

http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2014/11/12/4124033.htm

http://sciencebasedmedicine.org/antioxidants-and-exercise-more-harm-than-good/

https://medlineplus.gov/antioxidants.html

http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/20-common-foods-most-antioxidants

 

My first race with the team will be the Gravel and Tar Classic next week in New Zealand. Hopefully a good week of training and watching the antioxidant intake will have me ready to go! Until then, I’ll keep reading the research papers so you can spend more time on the bike.

Cheers,

Cyrus

© Cyrus Monk 2019

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