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The Importance of Antioxidants for Athletes

It doesn’t matter whether you are in the middle of your race season, entering the off-season, or entering your base training phase.  A healthy immune system is important. While certain things like decreasing stress and getting more sleep are beneficial – often times the power of certain foods are overlooked in maintaining a strong immune system.  This article will focus on these immune building foods, or antioxidants, and how to get more of them in our eating program.

The family of antioxidants has expanded greatly and includes not only the well-known vitamins C and E, beta-carotene and selenium but also includes substances such as grape skin, grape seed, lutein, tocopherols, alpha lipoic acid, phytochemicals and many others.  Because there are so many compounds that can be classified as antioxidants, it gets somewhat confusing evaluating them and knowing which ones have scientific merit to their use.

Before gaining a better understanding of antioxidants, it is important to first discuss why endurance athletes may need antioxidants.

Understanding Oxidative Stress

Oxidative stress happens throughout the day during training and non-training times.  It can happen due to higher intensity training, pollutants in the air, inflammation and altitude exposure.  Oxidative stress gives rise to free radicals, which are molecules that contain oxygen that have unpaired electrons. This isn’t a chemistry lesson but these unpaired electrons can lead to cell damage.  Because endurance athletes constantly train under UV rays, in pollution, and require an overall greater oxygen demand, oxidative stress is unavoidable and can sometimes be quite high.

What are Antioxidants?

An antioxidant is a nutrient that offers an electron-rich binding site for the damaging free radicals, giving them a preferential site to bind to and pair up with missing electrons.  This means an increased ability to “quench” oxidative stress and therefore improve health, performance and possibly recovery time.

Similar to developing nutritional deficiencies, the damaging effects of oxidative stress can take years. Antioxidants should be viewed as insurance agents against this damage. If you train heavily day in and day out, antioxidants from different foods and possibly pills/powders/drinks should be a staple in your eating program.

Most Antioxidant Rich Foods

Even though it’s easier to take a supplement, a healthy eating program should be the foundation of your antioxidant intake because there are more than just antioxidants contained in these foods (fiber, water, other vitamins and minerals).  Whole foods are always a better choice for acquiring all of your nutrient needs.  Choose brightly colored fruits and vegetables, grains, seeds, and nuts.  Here are a few examples:

Vitamin C rich foodsVitamin E-rich foodsCarotenoid-rich foods
(beta carotene, lycopene, lutein)
Orange, orange juiceAlmondsTomatoes
CantaloupeHazelnutsSweet potatoes
PapayaSunflower seedsCarrots
Grapefruit, grapefruit, cranberry juicesSpinachBroccoli
StrawberriesSweet potatoMango
KiwiOlive, sunflower, canola oilsSpinach, Kale
AsparagusWheat germKale
SpinachFortified cerealsCollard Greens
Broccoli Cantaloupe
Sweet red peppers  

Now, if you are thinking “I can’t eat that many fruits and vegetables to get enough of my antioxidants” then you are not alone.  There are many different choices on the shelves and if you need to turn to a supplement, I recommend choosing a formula that contains a variety of antioxidants including vitamins C & E, selenium and beta-carotene. You should also consider the following in your search for an appropriate formula: alpha lipoic acid, grape seed extract, carotenoids, lutein, lycopene, bioflavanoids, turmeric and quercetin.

3 Considerations for Athletes and Antioxidants

Taking into consideration all of the newest research on antioxidants and endurance athletes, there are a few points to consider:

  1. Athletes typically do not eat enough fruits and vegetables to obtain adequate amounts of antioxidants.
  2. Antioxidant supplementation may not be needed in short duration, high-intensity exercise.
  3. In ultra-endurance events, oxidative stress is high and antioxidant levels are compromised.

Overall, increasing fruit and vegetable intake to a minimum of 6-9 servings per day should be your goal and will supply you with a good amount of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. However, if you are competing in longer duration events, antioxidants may become more beneficial and therefore you should pay closer attention to your overall eating and antioxidant supplementation programs.

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Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, LD/N, CSCS
Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, LD/N, CSCS

Bob Seebohar is a Registered Dietitian specializing in sports nutrition for endurance athletes.  He is also an exercise physiologist and USA Triathlon Certified Level III Elite Coach.  Bob has completed over 100 endurance events including five Ironman races, the Boston Marathon, the Leadville 100 mile mountain bike race and the Leadville 100 mile trail run.  He was also a member of the 1996 US National Duathlon Team and competed in the World Championships in Ferrara, Italy.  He is also the author of the book, “Nutrition Periodization for Endurance Athletes: Taking Sports Nutrition to the Next Level” (Bull Publishing, 2004).

Bob provides sports nutrition consulting and coaching to all ages, types and abilities of endurance athletes. 


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