Exercise And The Need For Antioxidants

By Yuri Elkaim, BPHE, CK, RHN

Training increases demand on your body and depletes valuable nutrients. Training also results in various elevated oxidative levels in both aerobic and anaerobic exercises. The more intense your workouts, the greater increase in oxygen utilization. Some studies express concern as the whether this increased oxidative state causes the production of free radicals during exercise. The question then arises as to whether athletes need to supplement with antioxidants, or if your body can handle excess stress naturally.

Natural adaptation to exercise
Your body adapts to the intensified demands of aerobic training by increasing mitochondrial density. Antioxidant enzymes are located in the mitochondria, thus antioxidant levels naturally increase during aerobic training due to a larger volume of mitochondria per unit of muscle in your system.

As a result, higher mitochondria density means the greater potential for reactive oxygen species. But, can your body deal with the increased free radicals caused from these increased enzymes?

Though as athletes you naturally have better protection from damage caused by exercise-induced free radicals than those who are sedentary, you can’t automatically assume that your enzyme levels are high enough to protect against all skeletal muscular damage induced by free radicals.

Remember that all athletes are not created equal. Endurance athletes train in a different realm than their anaerobic counterparts. In fact, those whose training is adapted to build fast-twitch muscles, such as bodybuilders, sprinters, and power lifters, are more susceptible to free radical damage because the primary occurrence of enzymatic adaptation appears in slow-twitch muscle fibers.

Antioxidant boost
Regardless whether you train for endurance or power, you need an antioxidant boost after your training. Though antioxidant capacity is higher in endurance athletes, this does not eliminate the appearance of free radicals generated during long bouts of endurance training. Furthermore, various types of exercise decrease the body’s ability to protect itself from free radical formation despite training adaptation.

Antioxidant depletion is evident even in individual athletes who consume a nutrient dense, high quality whole foods diet. As an athlete, you will benefit greatly from ingesting antioxidant supplements directly after a training session. Consuming vitamin C, vitamin E, and coenzyme Q10 will lead to greater antioxidant defense.

This is not to say supplements should replace whole foods in your diet. Antioxidants are better absorbed and benefit you more greatly when consumed as whole foods. Conversely, foods rich in antioxidants lose valuable nutrients if packaged too long. Supplementation may be necessary to support what is lacking in your diet.

Antioxidant rich foods
A variety of foods in your diet are rich in antioxidants. Many different types of antioxidants protect your cells and tissue in different ways, so eat a variety of fresh produce, legumes, nuts, and spices to protect your body from free radical damage.

Best antioxidant rich foods by category:

  • Vegetables: red beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, artichoke hearts, russet potatoes
  • Fruits: blueberries, cranberries, blackberries, dried prunes, other berries, red delicious apples
  • Nuts: pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts
  • Spices: cinnamon, oregano, cloves


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