Antioxidants: Helpful or Not?

Antioxidants are a fundamental mixed bag. On the one hand, their ability to heal the body and combat inflammation helps the body recover quickly from exercise, not to mention help protect your everyday function and immune system.

On the other hand, researchers have in recent years discovered that this antioxidant influx also blunts the body’s adaption and supercompensation to training, that while you heal more quickly and completely you also interfere with the body’s ‘learning process’ in fighting the inflammation markers and growing to adapt to the stressor of your intense training.

Basically, because antioxidants are an external healer, your body is less likely to learn to adapt to the stress for future workouts.

Now, that’s not totally true. Countless accomplished athletes train hard, consume antioxidants, and still make training progress and succeed in their goal events. While the extra vitamins provide a sort of “cheat sheet” for your body to heal, it’s not like your body doesn’t still learn something from the experience. There is still growth and supercompensation.

The argument with antioxidant use is just that the potential growth is not as great when you, say, take a bunch of vitamin E and B complex and bail your body out from soreness and damage it otherwise would spend days to repair.

There is also the researched notion that antioxidants from fruit and other natural sources do not create this effect the way supplements do, but I don’t want to digress too far.

The flip side of this stunted adaption argument is that antioxidants, obviously, speed along the healing process. Regardless of your training goals, this can be very useful.

For example, while it may not benefit a distance runner generally to take an ice bath (which has a very similar effect, stunting adaption in the name of quick recovery) right after a workout or race, there is one time that it totally can help: Right after running a race when they have another race coming up tomorrow or very soon thereafter.

If you run, say, the 5000 meters and finish top 3 in your heat, qualifying for the final in two days, the quick-healing benefit of an ice bath and antioxidant vitamins vastly outweighs the loss of training adaptions from running a hard 5K. You need to be ready to run another race as close to 100% as possible in two days.

If a 5K runner was in the middle of a training block, an ice bath or a blast of vitamins after a midweek workout of hard repeats would typically be a bad idea. You’d lose a lot of the supercompensatory benefits of that hard workout, having accelerated healing and skipping past the biological adaptions you were looking for in that workout.

Sure, there’s a variety of scenarios where maybe the quicker recovery would make sense: You didn’t get good sleep, you have a bunch of other workouts coming in a couple days, you’re working through a minor injury or illness, you’re dealing with a lot of other stress and demands and you need to recover quickly… or (once again) maybe you have a race coming up that week. Generally, you want to let the body heal, but there can be times it makes sense to promote accelerated healing. (And all this never minds the separate complex issue of training programming, e.g. why have a hard workout and then a bunch of tough workouts right after it in the first place?)

I’ve mentioned taking Hammer Mito Caps, which are an antioxidant rich vitamin supplement. And my regular vitamin stack in general does contain a variety of antioxidants.

While I take the regular vitamins daily, in the morning or at night, as it promotes better sleep and overall health and recovery… I only take the Mito Caps on a situational basis. I don’t always take them before or after tough workouts. Sometimes it’s more beneficial for my body to naturally address the resulting inflammation and damage. Sometimes it’s best to have the vitamin blast and support better handling of the stress and faster recovery.

I don’t have a magic formula for when actively combating inflammation works best for you and when it’s best to leave it alone and let your body heal naturally. The above guidelines are relatively solid ones, but I realize your situation (outside of a busy race weekend) will be different almost every time the question arises.

I admittedly play my own situation by ear day over day, and I do tinker with various approaches and monitor the effect over time. I generally err on the side of antioxidants and faster healing, just because my life has a bunch of competing demands and the uncanny, all-day approach I take to fitness (not to mention doing some of it in extreme heat) is rather demanding compared to a typical weekend warrior who might just run once or twice a day before and/or after work.

I work pretty hard on my fitness and therefore I prefer to sacrifice a bit of growth for more consistent recovery between sessions. If I were training more conventionally, or even just 3-4 days a week, I’d probably stick to my regular multivitamin stack and let my body handle the training on its own. That’s basically what I did in Chicago, and while I improved a lot over high consistent volume I also see countless times where extra soreness or a lack of vitamin support held me back. I didn’t know then what I know now about antioxidants.

In any case, realize that extra antioxidant supplementation and fighting inflammation can inhibit your improvement from training, but that sometimes there are cases where that’s what you want or need.

(P.S. There is a side note to this: In a way, runners who are doping with performance enhancing drugs are in a way screwing themselves, as PED’s are a vastly accelerated version of the above anti-inflammatory methods. It’s a key reason people who use steroids seem to basically deflate after they stop using. Their bodies are not naturally adapting to the stressor because the PED’s are quickly healing them past that stage. Sure, there’s still massive growth in their performance, though that gets into other subjects like how their hormonal organs are being dangerously overworked, or their ligaments and tendons are being dangerously overstretched and turning into injury timebombs. Either way, you’re not helping yourself long term by taking PED’s, and thanks to bans in competition and the fact that many of these drugs are illegal, there’s not much positive incentive to using them between contests as suggested above with regular anti-inflammatory methods.)

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One thought on “Antioxidants: Helpful or Not?

  1. Steven Gomez says:

    Looking back at this, a side note:

    While re-reading Joe Friel’s Fast After 50, he made a key point about aging: Supercompensation isn’t as effective in older athletes.

    This lends credence to an idea, that older athletes find greater benefit from antioxidants and other natural anti-inflammatories than younger athletes.

    The original issue with antioxidants is that they blunted the supercompensation process, which is where the body grows from healing from the trauma to the body after hard workouts.

    But if your supercompensation is already diminished as an older athlete, then the damage of ingesting antioxidant supplements to your supercompensation potential isn’t as great as the effect of inflammation on your overall health and performance. As an older athlete you’re often better off healing more quickly back to baseline, than toughing out your pain and hoping for max supercompensation.

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