Is there a relationship between taking fish oil and exercise performance?
That was our hypothesis when we started giving Wellpride® fish oil to Thoroughbred racehorses nearly two decades ago. The theory held water. Horse trainers reported back that their horses had better endurance and recovered faster after racing.
Today, we know a lot more about how omega-3 fatty acids support the body during exercise (both in animals and people). The growing body of research presents a compelling case for why athletes of all kinds should consider adding omega-3s to their workout program.
Omega-3 fish oil isn’t going to land you on any doping drug list, yet there are numerous reasons why getting an effective dose of fish oil every day could significantly improve your workout:
For building strong muscles, protein usually tops the list of go-to nutrients. But besides protein, research indicates that omega-3 supplementation can also increase muscle mass and strength:
• A 2012 study from Brazil revealed that women in their 60s experienced greater improvements in muscle strength when they consumed 2000 mg of EPA/DHA and exercised each day. This was compared to women who completed the training without omega-3 supplements (1).
• A 2015 double-blind study focused on seniors (60-to 85-year-olds) found that consuming 3360 mg of EPA/DHA for 6 months helped increase muscle mass and muscle strength, independent of exercise (2, 3).
Some studies have found that taking fish oil may help improve muscle mass and reduce soreness after exercise.
While the above studies focused on older adults, there’s reason to believe younger individuals may experience similar benefits, too.
One study conducted on healthy adults age 25-45 found that supplementing with 4000 mg of EPA/DHA increased muscle protein synthesis (4). Another studying the same age group discovered that – when they consumed 3000 mg of EPA/DHA every day – study participants improved the number of bicep curls they could perform (5).
Note: Both of these studies were small and short-term. Therefore, more research is required in this area.
Numerous studies have also looked at how omega-3s can impact muscle soreness after exercising, which is also known as Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness (DOMS). Omega-3s are well-known for their anti-inflammatory benefits, and when it comes to DOMS, omega-3s may also reduce the risk of muscle cell injury by improving cell flexibility and elasticity (6).
A fair amount of research has been done on this topic (7, 8), so we have picked a few favorites:
• A 2014 study found that healthy college students with higher omega-3 index levels had a decreased incidence of DOMS compared to students with lower omega-3 index levels (6).
• A 2018 study from New Zealand looked at how omega-3s influenced professional athletes – in this case a team of rugby players. The researchers compared how the rugby players self-assessed muscle soreness, fatigue and mood when taking 1500 mg of omega-3s compared to a protein-based placebo. The result? Compared to the protein placebo, fish oil had a greater effect on reducing muscle soreness and fatigue (9).
• A 2018 study from researchers at Harvard Medical School found similar results when exploring how omega-3s impacted patients with coronary artery disease. Patients who received 3360 of EPA/DHA daily for one year had better physical function, fewer joint replacements, less pain and stiffness, and exercised more per week (compared to the control group) (10).
As beneficial as working out is for overall wellbeing, there are some risks related to exercise, too. Though the risk of sudden death following exercise is rare (accounting for just 5% of all sudden cardiac arrest cases), it’s still enough of a phenomenon to be a hot topic in sports medicine.
The good news is that a number of researchers believe adequate omega-3 consumption can reduce the risk of sudden death. Based on observational studies and randomized trials, this includes both patients with and without a history of heart disease (7, 11).
There is also evidence that omega-3s can help support the immune system after exercise (7). This is a potentially major benefit, since certain types of high-intensity or long endurance training programs can contribute to immunosuppression and put athletes at risk of upper respiratory tract infections (7, 12).
How much omega-3 a person needs can depend on age, genetics, lifestyle, diet, health condition – and potentially even how they exercise.
In articles on exercise, joints and muscles usually get all of the attention. But it’s also important to remember the brain, particularly for athletes engaged in sports that require accuracy, excellent hand-eye coordination, and laser focus.
Since omega-3 fatty acids make up a significant portion of the fats within the brain, they’ve understandably been studied extensively for their impact on cognition, focus, mood, and problem-solving skills.
A few studies have extended this research to athletes, too. For instance, one study focusing on elite female soccer players found that supplementing with 3500 mg of EPA/DHA for four weeks improved the players’ reaction time and efficiency (7).
Though further research is still needed, the results look promising so far.
Before your rush out to pick up fish oil capsules at your local drugstore, it’s important to understand that the benefits of omega-3s depend on dose and quality. In one review, researchers found that consuming supplements containing only EPA or DHA did not reduce several markers for DOMS. This is likely because these omega-3 fatty acids have a synergistic effect in the cells and work together to produce the best results (13).
Secondly, getting an optimal omega-3 dose matters tremendously, and what’s considered optimal may be related to how much you work out. Recently, scientists discovered that the omega-3 index levels of long-distance runners decreased progressively as their weekly running distance increased (14). Why did the omega-3 index decrease with more exercise? Likely because these athletes were using up the fatty acids over time.
We’ve written about the optimal timing for taking omega-3 supplements before, so we won’t spend too much on that question here. But the key thing to remember is that omega-3 supplements are best absorbed when taken in conjunction with or following a high-fat meal.
It’s also important to remember that omega-3s are not fast acting, like pain relieving drugs. You have to build up the omega-3 content in your cells over time and be consistent with getting enough in order to get beneficial results.
As we’ve discussed in other articles, a person’s optimal omega-3 needs can be influenced by factors like age, genetics, lifestyle, diet, health condition, and more. However, it is well known that most Americans – even those who consume an otherwise healthy diet – do not get enough of these essential nutrients (15).
In the studies referenced above, the researchers used between 1500 mg to 4000 mg of EPA/DHA daily to find positive effects. Unfortunately, many regular fish oil capsules contain only 300 mg of EPA/DHA. Depending on the brand and concentration, this means that you would have to swallow between 5 – 13 capsules every day to get up to the kind of dosages used in the studies cited above.
When considering omega-3 supplements, check the nutrition facts to see how much EPA + DHA you get per serving.
* The omega-3 content in wild salmon can vary depending on the type of salmon, time of the year, how it is prepared, etc.
At Omega3 Innovations, we prefer to get an effective omega-3 dose by taking one pre-measured vial of fresh, full-spectrum Omega Cure® Extra Strength liquid fish oil every day. Each vial contains 3000 mg of EPA/DHA — enough to cover most people’s omega-3 needs.
To make it easy, add Omega Cure Extra Strength to your protein shakes or smoothies, or drink it straight. Use it consistently for at least six to 12 weeks before expecting to feel noticeable results.
Another alternative is to eat an Omega Passion chocolate bar as a pre-workout breakfast or snack. In addition to containing 1500 mg of EPA/DHA, Omega Passion also contains oat fiber, non-alkalized dark chocolate, Greek yogurt, walnuts and cinnamon – all ingredients noted for their benefits.
While we can’t guarantee that you’ll look like the young version of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jennifer Aniston, you’ll be empowering every cell in your body with the fuel needed for a better workout.
1. Rodacki, C.L., Rodacki, A.L., Pereira, G., Naliwaiko, K., Coelho, I., Pequito, D. & Fernandes, L.C. (2012). Fish-Oil Supplementation Enhances the Effects of Strength Training in Elderly Women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 95(2):428-36.
2. Smith, G. I., Julliand, S., Reeds, D. N., Sinacore, D. R., Klein, S., & Mittendorfer, B. (2015). Fish Oil-Derived N-3 PUFA Therapy Increases Muscle Mass and Function in Healthy Older Adults. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 102(1), 115–122.
3. Jeromson, S., Gallagher, I. J., Galloway, S. D., & Hamilton, D. L. (2015). Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Skeletal Muscle Health. Marine Drugs, 13(11), 6977–7004.
4. Smith, G. I., Atherton, P., Reeds, D. N., Mohammed, B. S., Rankin, D., Rennie, M. J., & Mittendorfer, B. (2011). Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Augment the Muscle Protein Anabolic Response to Hyperinsulinaemia-Hyperaminoacidaemia in Healthy Young and Middle-Aged Men and Women. Clinical Science (London, England : 1979), 121(6), 267–278.
5. Jouris, K. B., McDaniel, J. L., & Weiss, E. P. (2011). The Effect of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation on the Inflammatory Response to Eccentric Strength Exercise. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 10(3), 432–438.
6. Lembke, P., Capodice, J., Hebert, K., & Swenson, T. (2014). Influence of Omega-3 (n3) Index on Performance and Wellbeing in Young Adults After Heavy Eccentric Exercise. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 13(1), 151–156.
7. Gammone, M. A., Riccioni, G., Parrinello, G., & D’Orazio, N. (2018). Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids: Benefits and Endpoints in Sport. Nutrients, 11(1), 46.
8. Da Boit, M., Hunter, A. M., & Gray, S. R. (2017). Fit with Good Fat? The Role of N-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids on Exercise Performance. Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental, 66, 45–54.
9. Black, K.E. (2018). Adding Omega-3 Fatty Acids to a Protein-Based Supplement During Pre-Season Training Results in Reduced Muscle Soreness and the Better Maintenance of Explosive Power in Professional Rugby Union Players. European Journal of Sport Science, 18(10):1357-1367.
10. Alfaddagh, A., Elajami, T.K., Saleh, M., Elajami, M., Bistrian, B.R., Welty, F.K. (2018). The Effect of Eicosapentaenoic and Docosahexaenoic Acids on Physical Function, Exercise, and Joint Replacement in Patients with Coronary Artery Disease: A Secondary Analysis of a Randomized Clinical Trial. Journal of Clinical Lipidology, 12(4):937-947.e2.
11. O’Keefe, E.L. et al. (2019). Sea Change for Marine Omega-3s: Randomized Trials Show Fish Oil Reduces Cardiovascular Events. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 94(12), 2524 – 2533.
12. Gałązka-Franta, A., Jura-Szołtys, E., Smółka, W., & Gawlik, R. (2016). Upper Respiratory Tract Diseases in Athletes in Different Sports Disciplines. Journal of Human Kinetics, 53, 99–106.
13. Ochi, E., & Tsuchiya, Y. (2018). Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) in Muscle Damage and Function. Nutrients, 10(5), 552.
14. Davinelli, S. et al. (2019). Relationship Between Distance Run Per Week, Omega-3 Index, and Arachidonic Acid (AA)/Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) Ratio: An Observational Retrospective Study in Non-Elite Runners. Frontiers in Physiology, 10, 487.
15. Thuppal, S. V. et al. (2017). Discrepancy between Knowledge and Perceptions of Dietary Omega-3 Fatty Acid Intake Compared with the Omega-3 Index. Nutrients, 9(9), 930.