When you hear the word “antioxidants,” you probably conjure up something positive, something you’ve been told to eat more of. But what exactly is an antioxidant–and how does it translate to your health and running?
What are antioxidants? Where can we find them?
Antioxidants are natural or artificial substances that can delay or prevent cell damage. Many antioxidants are naturally found in the foods we eat, like fruits, vegetables, chocolate, coffee and tea. You’ve probably heard of vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene and selenium, all known for their antioxidant qualities. Other compounds, such as phytochemicals, also provide antioxidant properties, like the lycopene in tomatoes, the anthocyanins in blueberries and the catechins from green tea. You can also get antioxidants from supplements.
How do antioxidants affect our health?
In simple terms, antioxidants stop or prevent damage caused by free radicals (also known as ROS: reactive oxygen species, or oxidants) in our body and environment. Free radicals contain an unpaired electron, making them unstable, with the potential to harm human cells and propagate stress in the body. We are constantly exposed to free radicals through things like pollution, smoking, radiation and exercise (yes, even exercise creates stress in the body). Free radicals can cause inflammation in the body and are linked to some chronic diseases. Antioxidants help to neutralize these free radicals and ROS by donating an extra electron, making them more stable and less harmful.
While it may seem like a no-brainer to just consume more antioxidants for better health, that’s not always the case. Our bodies have internal antioxidant systems that, under normal circumstances, are able to manage our stress. However, too many exogenous antioxidants can override our body’s ability to run its innate antioxidant system. Therefore, there is a balance of oxidants to antioxidants we want to maintain.
How do antioxidants influence performance?
In regards to exercise, antioxidants have been linked to an increase in performance and aerobic capacity. In fact, acute intake of antioxidants like vitamin E may enhance athletic performance by reducing markers of oxidative stress and enhancing recovery. However, the ROS produced from exercise may offer some benefits in exercise and training adaptations because the presence of oxidants upregulates our body’s antioxidant system. In other words, by having some ROS in our bodies, we develop a stronger tolerance for handling it, which can correlate with improved performance and recovery, upregulated antioxidant defenses and more muscle growth.
What’s the bottom line?
In conclusion, there are differences between the antioxidants we get from supplements and foods. It’s difficult to overdo our needs with just foods alone, so continue loading up on those blueberries in your smoothie. If you’re under constant stress or undergoing intense physical training, like marathon training, it’s probably worth including more foods rich in antioxidants in your diet. Think about the fruits and veggies that offer vitamin C (bell peppers, mangos, oranges), the phytochemicals in berries and the reduced inflammatory properties of nuts and seeds (which are high in vitamin E). But there’s probably no need to take any high dose antioxidant supplements, which may blunt, rather than exaggerate, the adaptive effects of exercise training.
Sarah Schlichter is a registered dietitian and marathon runner based in Charlotte, N.C. She works as a nutrition consultant and in private practice, where she writes the blog, Bucket List Tummy, sharing nutrition posts, healthy recipes, running tips and everything on her bucket list.