Why athletes need omega-3s

While many of us think of omega-3 fatty acids as being good for heart health, new research shows omega-3s also provide benefits for athletes.    

What are fatty acids?

Fatty acids, which are long chains of carbon, are classified as saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Polyunsaturated fats contain omega-3s and omega-6s. Although there is wide variability between people, most Americans consume 10 times more omega-6s than omega-3s. Most experts agree a healthier ratio would be closer to 2:1.

Reduce omega-6s, increase omega-3s to achieve balance

One approach to restoring balance of omega levels is to decrease intake of omega-6s and increase intake of good sources of omega-3 fats.

Fish and fish oil supplements are the richest source of omega-3s — the main two are called EPA and DHA.

Oils like soy, corn and safflower are rich in omega-6s. Replacing these oils with other oils rich in omega-3s such as flaxseed, or omega-9s found in olive and canola, will also help improve the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.

Recover faster

Compared to omega-3s, omega-6s are more strongly associated with inflammation. Fish oil supplementation consistently results in lower levels of inflammation. High levels of inflammation can counteract some of exercise’s positive effects on insulin sensitivity and other metabolic benefits. If inflammation remains elevated after exercise, this can negatively impact muscle soreness, tissue repair and other aspects of recovery.

Reduce muscle soreness

Omega-3 fats have also been shown to augment blood flow to muscles during exercise, decrease muscle soreness by 35%, reduce swelling, and increase range of motion after damaging exercise.

Burn fat and slow muscle loss

Studies also show that increasing omega-3 levels enhances insulin sensitivity, which improves fat burning in muscles and inhibits fat storage. Emerging work is even showing that omega-3s may regulate muscle growth and help during extended periods of rest by slowing the loss in both muscle and bone. This could apply for athletes during breaks in training or layoffs due to injury where muscle loss could be significant.

Lowers triglycerides

In recent studies, omega-3s in combination with exercise was shown to maximize fat loss. In addition, subjects who supplemented with fish oil decreased blood triglycerides by 14%, increased high density lipoprotein (“good”) cholesterol by 10% and improved the functioning of blood vessels. All these lines of research on omega-3s point to better recovery and improved health for athletes.

How much to take?

Omega-3 levels vary by individual, as does how individuals respond to omega-3 intake. There are commercial tests available to check levels, which might be prudent. A general guideline, however, is to aim for 500 mg of EPA plus DHA per day, and a more optimal level might be 1,000-2,000 mg per day. This could be achieved by consuming one serving of fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines and herring) every other day, but many people might find this challenging or have concerns about contaminants in fish.

Eating some fish and taking fish oil supplements containing EPA and DHA may be the most economical and easiest way to boost your EPA and DHA intake.

What’s better — fish or krill?

A recent study compared the incorporation of omega-3 fats from fish oil into blood phospholipids after a one-time ingestion. The three formulations studied were derived from fish oil and krill oil, but varied in the chemical form: fish oil (re-esterified triacylglycerides), fish oil (ethyl-esters) and krill oil (phospholipid bound).

Despite consuming equal amounts of omega-3s, over a period of 72 hours there was better incorporation of EPA and DHA into blood phospholipids after ingestion of krill oil. The EPA and DHA in krill oil are mainly bound to phospholipids and these results indicate that this chemical form may be about 15% more bioavailable than traditional fish oil capsules.

However, krill is several times more costly than fish oil per gram of omega-3s. Therefore, taking higher levels of fish oil compared to krill oil may work just as well to boost your EPA and DHA levels. Fish oil softgels are by far the most common form taken by individuals. The best option may be to take both fish oil and krill oil.

Cod liver oil provides omega-3s

Cod liver oil is another natural source of valuable omega-3s. It's also a source of vitamin A, and is one of the few good dietary sources of vitamin D. Vitamins A and D support normal calcium metabolism, normal bone development and help maintain healthy bone structure.

Flaxseed oil—a vegetable source of omega-3s

Flaxseed oil is nature’s richest vegetable source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 precursor to EPA and DHA. ALA is also found in canola oil, and to a lesser extent in some nuts like walnuts and almonds. Humans need to convert ALA to EPA and DHA, which is not very efficient. So fish or fish oil are still the best sources.

However, flaxseed oil is a good option to help boost omega-3s in conjunction with fish or fish oil. Flaxseed oil is a good alternative to salad dressings that contain high omega-6 oils like soy, corn and safflower. Flaxseed oil is also great in a protein shake.

Take with antioxidants

Taking omega-3 fats with an antioxidant may also be a good idea since omega-3 fats are highly unsaturated and prone to degradation by reactive oxygen species (free radicals). For example, studies have shown synergy between omega-3 fats and gamma tocopherol (a form of vitamin E).


A proper balance of omega-3s and omega-6s is vital for good overall health. Not only do omega-3s provide benefits for the heart, they also help support athletic performance and recovery.

Products mentioned in this article:


Fish Oil

Flaxseed Oil

Krill Oil

Cod Liver Oil

Previous Next Back to Top
More Related Articles