Omega-3 for Athletes
By: Dr. Maille Devlin, ND
Omega-3 fatty acids are well known for their cardiovascular benefits; however, these polyunsaturated fats also play a significant role in muscle repair and recovery, endurance, and in decreasing pain and stiffness associated with athletic training and performance. Therefore, omega-3 fatty acids are a critical supplement for most athletes.
Omega-3 fatty acids can aid in resistance training through increasing rates of muscle growth and decreasing muscle loss during injury.1 In a study that looked at supplementation with approximately 3.3g per day of omega-3 fatty acids for 8 weeks, researchers found a significant increase in the rate of protein synthesis in healthy adults.1 The muscle growth exhibited changes in volume of the quadriceps muscle in older adults, lasting over 6 months.1
Supplementing with omega-3s accelerates the process in which your body utilizes protein to create muscle.1 Individuals must have adequate protein in order to obtain the muscle-building impacts.1 Exercise of the muscle is also needed to stimulate muscle growth, but the supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids may enhance the overalls process.
Omega-3 fatty acids may be useful for injured athletes who cannot train as they usually would. Omega-3s can also decrease catabolic processes such as muscle breakdown.2 Therefore, supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial in injured athletes who are unable to train at their usual level and are worried about muscle loss.
Additionally, the supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids can lead to increase in strength.3 Researchers have hypothesized that the increase in muscle strength may be a result of the improved nerve conduction with supplementation found in in vitro studies.3 The enhanced nerve conduction leads to improved muscle activation.3 Studies which looked at male athletes who supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids, found increased muscle activation and decreased fatigue during maximal back squat.3
Therefore, omega-3 fatty acids may not just increase muscle synthesis but also muscle strength.
The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for endurance athletes can be attributed to the vasodilatory impacts of the polyunsaturated fatty acids.4 Vasodilation of the blood vessels increases the amount of blood flow to muscle groups, delivering more oxygen during exercise.3 Omega-3 fatty acids have also demonstrated decreases in lower maximum as well as resting heart rate and heart rate variability.
The enhanced nerve conduction responsible for improving muscle strength has also exhibited lower levels of muscle fatigue during sets with longer reps.5
Therefore, omega-3 fatty acids may benefit both cardiovascular and skeletal muscle endurance.5
Due to the cognitive benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, reaction time may improve with supplementation. Omega-3 fatty acids have demonstrated roles in cognitive function and visual signaling.6 In a study by the journal of Sports Science and Medicine, researchers found that after supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids for 4 weeks, soccer players had significant improvements in their reaction time.6
Perhaps the most significant role of omega-3 fatty acids for athletes is their anti-inflammatory impact. Omega-3 fatty acids may improve recovery after training or athletic performance by promoting recovery of damaged muscles. Through omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, the fatty acids are incorporated into the membrane of cells. By increasing the structural integrity of the cells, the body is able to repair tissues more efficiently, which is important for reducing fatigue during sport as well as reducing recovery time.7 Due to the oxidative stress which builds during exercise, inflammation occurs in athletes over time. The anti-inflammatory impacts of omega-3 fatty acids help fight off chronic inflammation reducing muscle soreness and lessen the oxidative damage to muscle groups.7 Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a common phenomenon athletes experience one to two days after training. This leads to pain and stiffness in the muscles due to microscopic tears in the muscle fibres. The small tears stimulate the inflammation process in the body and increased inflammation leads to the sore muscles.
In a study of men who were given 3g of omega-3 fatty acids in a 2:1 ratio of EPA to DHA, had a decrease in the DOMS they experienced after an intense bout of strength training. The men had reduced levels of perceived pain as well as increased range of motion post exercise.8 It was noted that due to adaptation, veteran athletes may not experience as much DOMS to begin with and therefore will have a decreased response to the omega-3 fatty acids when compared to an individual who does not regularly train.8
Omega-3 fatty acids may therefore be helpful for experienced athletes when easing back into intense training after time off, or when trying out a new type of training.
Although research is still occuring to determine exact dosages and specifics around omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for athletes, evidence demonstrates that these polyunsaturated fatty acids have the potential to play a role in improving muscle synthesis, endurance, reaction time and recovery.
Based on current knowledge, omega-3 supplementation has the potential to play a role in improving training adaptation, exercise recovery, injury prevention, and subsequent performance in athlete populations. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring, however, supplementation may be needed to reach adequate levels.
Never start supplementing before checking in with a regulated health professional.
- Smith GI, Atherton P, Reeds DN, Mohammed BS, Rankin D, Rennie MJ, Mittendorfer B. Dietary omega-3 fatty acid supplementation increases the rate of muscle protein synthesis in older adults: a randomized controlled trial. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2011 Feb 1;93(2):402-12.
- Malta FA, Estadella D, Gonçalves DC. The role of omega 3 fatty acids in suppressing muscle protein catabolism: A possible therapeutic strategy to reverse cancer cachexia?. Journal of functional foods. 2019 Mar 1;54:1-
- Gammone MA, Riccioni G, Parrinello G, D’Orazio N. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: benefits and endpoints in sport. Nutrients. 2019 Jan;11(1):46.
- Le Guen M, Chaté V, Hininger-Favier I, Laillet B, Morio B, Pieroni G, Schlattner U, Pison C, Dubouchaud H. A 9-wk docosahexaenoic acid-enriched supplementation improves endurance exercise capacity and skeletal muscle mitochondrial function in adult rats. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2016 Feb 1;310(3):E213-24
- Simopoulos AP. Omega-3 fatty acids and athletics. Current sports medicine reports. 2007 Aug 1;6(4):230-6.
- Guzmán JF, Esteve H, Pablos C, Pablos A, Blasco C, Villegas JA. DHA-rich fish oil improves complex reaction time in female elite soccer players. Journal of sports science & medicine. 2011 Jun;10(2):301.
- Tartibian B, Maleki BH, Abbasi A. The effects of ingestion of omega-3 fatty acids on perceived pain and external symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness in untrained men. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. 2009 Mar 1;19(2):115-9.
- Jouris KB, McDaniel JL, Weiss EP. The effect of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on the inflammatory response to eccentric strength exercise. Journal of sports science & medicine. 2011 Sep;10(3):432.