These days there’s increasing buzz about fish oils, the benefits of which have been touted by the health-food community for years. Fish oils are the richest source of the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA; “essential” meaning that the human body cannot manufacture them on its own, but requires them for a variety of important functions, including muscle repair and efficient protein synthesis. The cruel irony is that although the modern Western diet is typically quite high in fat, it is overwhelmingly poor in omega-3s. What that means for you, my athletic friend, is that you could be missing out on some pretty significant benefits that a higher intake of omega-3s can produce in physically active folks. There’s a wealth of scientific evidence that strongly suggests fish oils could boost your recovery, help build lean muscle, fire up fat-burning capabilities, and maintain long-term health. Sound pretty good? Yup, thought so. Here’s the science:
Recover Faster And Better
As a general rule, we tend to eat too much omega-6, and not enough omega-3. This imbalance is widely thought to cause elevated levels of inflammation. Excessive post-workout inflammation can negatively impact many aspects of recovery, slow down tissue repair, and even undo some of the benefits of your workout. Fish oils to the rescue. Research has consistently linked higher omega-3 intake to reduced levels of inflammation. In practice, this means that fish oils could be a valuable tool in helping you recover faster from your WOD, and subsequently making your next workout safer and more effective.
Omega-3s may also increase blood circulation to muscles, which in turn helps to boost recovery and reduce post-workout swelling. Any kind of strenuous exercise causes muscle fiber damage, which again triggers that pesky inflammatory response; omega-3s help inhibit this response and increase microvascular oxygenation, thus promoting faster muscle repair and speedier recovery.
Many of us experience the most soreness not immediately after a hard workout, but about two days later. While this kind of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is fairly normal, you’re probably itching to get back in the gym, and definitely don’t want to be debilitatingly sore for longer than strictly necessary. Luckily, omega-3s are fantastic at reducing this type of exercise-induced muscle damage, and so should be a non-negotiable part of your post-workout recovery snack or meal. It’s worth pointing that these same principles apply in the long run, too: adequate recovery is incredibly important in the grander scheme of your training as well. Consistently working out in an under-recovered state will eventually impede the body’s ability to adapt to training stimulus. In layman’s terms: you plateau in your training, and stop making gains. And no gains = no bueno.
Build More Lean Muscle
If you’re looking to shed excess fat and get lean, adding more fat into your diet might feel, well, kind of counterintuitive. However, multiple studies show that as far as weight loss is concerned, fish oils and exercise have a strong synergistic relationship.
The nuts and bolts, in their simplest form, are as follows: protein is essential for muscle repair, but we also need that protein to get broken down and absorbed efficiently. Without this mechanism in place, you might as well be pouring that expensive post-workout shake down the drain.
How do you make sure the protein is going where it’s needed and doing its muscle repair magic? There’s strong evidence to suggest that fish oils can help here, too. Omega-3 fatty acids help promote efficient protein synthesis—that is, the process of using amino acid “building blocks” to repair the micro-tears that occur in muscles as a result of exercise. In other words, when you combine exercise, protein and the miraculous omega 3s, you can not only build lean muscle and get shredded faster, but the effects of your workout extend long after you’ve put the weights down. Pretty sweet.
As an added bonus, omega-3s can also help increase fat burning in muscles and inhibit fat storage by enhancing insulin sensitivity. Insulin resistance is a bad, bad thing because it encourages the body to hold on to fat, especially at times when you happen eat too much. (We’ve all been there: sometimes it’s hard to control yourself after a particularly butt-kicking workout).
The good news? There’s lots of evidence to suggest that upping your omega-3 intake can reduce insulin resistance, so that when you do scarf some extra calories, the resulting blood sugar spike doesn’t go straight to your waistline. Fish oils are similarly reported to control hunger and curb cravings: when you feel fuller for longer, there’s less tendency to graze on random treats between meals.
Maintain Overall Health
Fish oils are well-known for their power to enhance cognitive abilities, helping you to stay sharp and focused in your training (as well as the other, non-box areas of your life). Just some of the benefits include a strong immune system, a healthy heart, and efficient cell function, obviously, all things you need in order to stay healthy and active for the long haul.
When it comes to exercise, though, you’d be hard pressed to overstate the importance of fish oils and their role in tissue repair. Overtraining and under-recovery are unsustainable states; at best, they cause you to plateau in your training, at worst, they lead to burnout and serious hormonal imbalances. Clearly, curbing some of the longer-term effects of intensive exercise via a healthy diet and sensible training is the only responsible thing to do.
So how much omega-3 should you be getting for maximum benefits? Nutrition expert Dr. Doug Bibus, who provided much of the science for this article, recommends a daily dose of 1,000 mg to 3,000 mg of long-chain omega-3 (EPA and DHA) for physically active people. In reality, though, it can be difficult to get all of your intake from fish alone. Most people don’t eat oily fish every single day, are averse to the strong taste, or have reservations about possible contaminants. While everyone should look for the supplement that best serves their needs, my personal favorite is the Coromega fish oil squeeze shot, which delivers 2,000 mg of fish oil, and is clinically proven to absorb 300% better than softgels*.
As an added bonus, this oil is emulsified in its own facility in San Diego. Emulsified fish oil is not a pill, but more like a sport shot. It’s easier to digest and absorb, meaning you’ll get zero fishy burps, and the convenient single-serving packaging means you can take it whenever works best for you. Many CrossFitters take a double dose for a total of 4,000 mg of fish oil and 1,300 mg of EPA/DHA Omega-3s. And while there’s a lot of debate about the best time to take your fish oil, Dr Bibus says the timing itself is less important than maintaining a structured routine, such as taking your supplement every day with breakfast.
If you have questions about fish oil and your training, or simply want to try some samples of Coromega, I invite you to reach out to Joes@coromega.com. He’ll direct questions to me or the Coromega Clinical Nutritionist Dr. Doug Bibus.
*J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109:1076.1081