Do Antioxidants Give You a Competitive Edge? - By Jen Rawson, RD
One of the most overlooked components of performance is recovery. Long runs, fartleks and hill repeats help build a faster runner, but without proper recovery, the performance gains from the effort will be limited. Recovery is complex and multifactorial. It goes beyond taking days off to rest, as it also includes managing stress, getting enough sleep and eating the right foods. Most people are aware of the need for carbohydrates and protein post- workout to refuel and repair, but what about the use of antioxidants to maximize recovery?
What is the purpose of running fuel?
Inflammation is the process our body uses to manage stress, injury or recovery from hard workouts. Antioxidants, as the name suggests, reduce oxidation and inflammation in the body, to allow for quicker recovery. Because runners undergo a lot of hard workouts that generate inflammation, naturally there is a lot of interest in antioxidant-rich foods to speed up recovery and promote maximum performance gains.
A considerable amount of research has gone into the use of the most popular and ubiquitous antioxidant supplements: vitamins C and E. Supplementation with these antioxidants in the short term may provide some performance gains, but chronic supplementation can actually impair the body's ability to adapt and therefore negatively impact performance. Therefore, supplementation with these vitamins for performance without consultation with a dietitian is not recommended.
This leads us to a search for food-based antioxidants. There are many foods that contain high amounts of antioxidants such as berries, tomatoes, wine and dark chocolate. However, there always seems to be a standout antioxidant touted as the next great "superfood" at any given time. For a while it was goji berries, then green tea extract, followed by tart cherry juice and turmeric. Let's look at these last two for more details.
Turmeric is a yellow spice commonly used in curries and mustards. The active antioxidant-containing compound within turmeric is curcumin. Turmeric and curry spices both contain active curcumin, although amounts may vary. India has been using curcumin as an antioxidant for thousands of years in traditional Ayurvedic medicine.
Though curcumin is an antioxidant, the main drawback is its limited bioavailability, meaning it's not well absorbed by our bodies. To achieve antioxidant benefits, high doses (up to 8 grams per day) taken in supplement form may be required. And while no adverse effects (aside from some possible stomach upset) have been seen at high doses, there is no current consensus on the effectiveness of supplementation or dosage.
Rather than popping curcumin-containing supplements, a more holistic approach for runners would be to incorporate more turmeric spice into their diet. Turmeric combines well with vegetables, beans, lentils and eggs. It adds excellent colour and flavour to casseroles, soups, stews or even a morning smoothie. Additionally, curcumin absorption is increased when it is combined with pepper or fat-containing foods, making whole foods a better vehicle than supplements.
While you might easily be able to eat bags of cherries in the summer, sweet cherries are not the ones that will give you the high-dose antioxidant benefit. Tart cherries are more commonly found as a juice or in powdered supplement form to improve palatability and concentration. There is a lot of promising research around tart cherries and athletic performance. Tart cherries contain high levels of melatonin, a hormone responsible for regulating sleep. As sleep is an important factor in athletic recovery, supplementation with cherry juice has interesting athletic implications, although more research in this area is needed.
Tart cherries also contain antioxidants, which research has shown to reduce inflammation and perception of pain after an athletic event. These effects allow an athlete to recover more quickly, work harder at their next training session and therefore potentially increase their performance. A 2016 study showed that half marathon runners who supplemented with powdered tart cherries averaged 13% faster finish times than those who received the placebo.
The research on tart cherry juice is promising, however, there are no currently accepted guidelines on supplementation dosage, frequency or timing. The majority of studies have supplemented five to ten days pre-event, the day of event and two days afterwards, but the dosage and type of supplement has varied.
Antioxidants are always a hot topic. Not only do they have numerous proposed health benefits, but they may also play a role in improved athletic performance. Research is ongoing but one thing is clear: more is not always better. Singling out antioxidants such as vitamin C and E has proved largely ineffective and possibly detrimental to athletes, whereas consuming antioxidants as part of whole foods may provide the ergogenic effect you are looking for.
Curcumin in turmeric is very popular at the moment but its absorption is limited. At present, there is limited human research available that supports its use to boost athletic performance. So while I wouldn't go looking for turmeric supplements to take daily, adding it into your cooking may prove beneficial to your overall health.
On the other hand, tart cherry juice has a significant amount of supporting research for improving athletic performance. Including tart cherry juice into an already well-balanced training regime and diet may improve performance, but be warned: it's not a miracle juice. An athlete must put in the work to see the results.