Are Endurance Athletes More Prone to Oxidative Stress?

If there’s one thing any endurance athlete knows, it’s that proper oxygenation is key to performance. Whether you run, bike, swim or are fond of combining all three, breathing is at the heart of training and execution. The name of the game is maintaining your target heart rate, to keep blood pumping and to ensure your body gets the oxygen it needs to keep you moving at peak performance.

Recovery is the second most important part of endurance training. And while many athletes know that means plenty of rest, hydration and recuperation, what many don’t realize is that it means recovering from oxidative stress, as well.

What is oxidative stress?
Oxidative stress is caused by Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS), which are incomplete oxygen atoms in the body. They’re free radical agents, which means they’re unable to bond or break down appropriately. Instead, they attempt to steal electrons from other atoms, damaging cells in the process. Over time, this cell damage manifests in different ways: from wrinkles in your skin to an unexpected cancer diagnosis. Indeed, oxidative stress is central to the most devastating human condition: aging.

Every person in the world deals with ROS and free radicals to some degree. Unfortunately, studies show that endurance athletes need to take even more caution in protecting themselves against the effects of oxidative stress. Why? Because that intense focus on oxygenation during performance activity is a catalyst for increased ROS activity.

This increase in ROS comes from increased oxygenation. Endurance athletes not only push their bodies to the limit—they do so while circulating significant amounts of oxygen. This combination opens the door to higher levels of ROS, exposed to the body more frequently. In what’s called an ‘exercise paradox,’ endurance training can actually cause lasting harm to the body, in the form of increased oxidative stress.

Another aspect of recovery to consider
Depending on your sport, recovery can take many different forms. It might be an ice bath to soothe burning joints after a run. Electrolytes and a nap after a century bike ride. Some quality time with a foam roller after a sprint triathlon?

Unfortunately, we tend to think of recovery as a physical practice. We rest and recover according to what hurts, or what muscle groups we’ve strained during the last workout or event. The problem is, oxidative stress is indiscriminate: it affects the entire body. That makes recuperation difficult after strenuous activity. What can you do for your entire body besides resting it?

If your mind immediately jumps to nutrition, you’re on the right track.

Endurance athletes tend to have highly regulated diets that ensure they’re getting enough “clean carbs” alongside balanced nutrition from lean proteins. There are even vegetarian and vegan diets adapted to endurance athletes, made popular by figures such as Rich Roll. Regardless of preference or dietary restrictions, endurance athletes need to be mindful of not just what they eat, but the vitamin content of those foods. Specifically, Vitamin E.

Fighting back against ROS and oxidative stress
While every vitamin plays a key role in achieving optimum health, for endurance athletes, Vitamin E is especially important. It’s a powerful antioxidant that specifically combats free radicals, thereby reducing oxidative stress within the body.

Vitamin E is actually a group of molecules: four tocopherols and four tocotrienols. As a group, these molecules scavenge ROS within the body, donating excess electrons to balance free radicals and make them amenable molecules. They’re directly linked to free radical reduction and the oxidative stress that comes with it. And for endurance athletes, they’re critical in protecting against increased free radical exposure.

Much like lean protein aids muscle recovery and fluids replenish important electrolytes, Vitamin E combats ROS after a particularly strenuous workout—and long after. As a fat-soluble vitamin, the body retains Vitamin E and uses it as-needed, rather than excreting it like water-soluble vitamins. Unfortunately, endurance athletes tend to be lean, with lower body fat percentages than those with general BMI measurements. Combined with increased exposure to ROS, it’s important for endurance athletes to replenish their stores of Vitamin E regularly—whether through a diet rich in the vitamin or through supplementation.

Keeping focus on a well-conditioned body
Endurance athletes dedicate themselves to conditioning, whether it’s running for hours at a time, biking hundreds of miles or swimming at a vigorous pace. Serious athletes know the importance of proper training and recovery, and commit themselves to these key areas to improve their performance. This commitment needs to include defending against ROS and oxidative stress. To do that takes a balanced diet or keen supplementation, specifically focused on maintaining Vitamin E levels.

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