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Nowadays omega-3 fatty acids are touted as remedies for a range of disorders from eye conditions  and sore joints to heart disease and diabetes. But one application where they have received relatively little attention is their potential for improving vascular function in highly trained endurance athletes.

As such a group of researchers from Poland recently set out to evaluate the effects of 3-weeks supplementation with omega-3 on nitric oxide, endothelial function and maximum oxygen uptake (i.e. VO2max) in a group of elite endurance cyclists. Their somewhat surprising findings are published in the September 2014 issue of the European Journal of Sports Science.

The supplement intervention entailed twice daily administration of 1.3g omega-3 fatty acids in softgel capsules over a 3-week period. Fatty acid composition wise, the 1.3g was made up of 660mg EPA and 440mg DHA. The authors of the study used a placebo-controlled crossover trial such that each cyclist had a turn taking both omega-3 and placebo.

The study subjects were classified as elite cyclists; having an average VO2max of 70ml/kg/min and an average monthly training volume of 655km. To control for the influence of diet, three weeks prior to the study all participants were put on a mixed isocaloric diet (2899 +/- 1100 kcal/day) consisting of carbohydrates in the amount of 375.3 ± 162.6 g/day, protein: 132.3 ± 48.5 g/day and fats: 104.9 ± 46.7 g/day. The study ran over a period of 11 weeks in total, which consisted of a 3-week run in period, 3 week supplement period, 2-week washout and another cross-over 3-week supplement period. During this entire 11 weeks, the cyclists were consuming the control diet.

To assess vascular function, the researchers measured a range of parameters, some of which are familiar to the average gym junkie and some that are not. Nitric oxide, the popular vasodilator (aka pump activator) was measured together with another marker called asymmetric dimethylarginine (ADMA).

In short, the researchers found that supplementation with omega-3 resulted in a significant increase in levels of nitric oxide both at rest and in response to exercise. Most importantly, this correlated with a significant increase in VO2max, which was also associated with a lower hear rate at maximal exercise intensity. Overall, three weeks of omega-3 supplementation had a beneficial effect on endothelial function, which in turn significantly increased VO2max. These findings would seem to suggest that regular supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids can offer measurable performance benefits to competitive endurance athletes.

Żebrowska A, et al. Omega-3 fatty acids supplementation improves endothelial function and maximal oxygen uptake in endurance-trained athletes. European Journal of Sport Science. 2014; Sep 1:1-10. [Epub ahead of print]

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