There are a lot of misconceptions around fat, from both health and performance perspectives. Fat is typically thought of as the fat we store, but fats also play important roles in cellular functions, hormone health and more. Some fats, or what we call the healthy fats, are essential for helping the body to function optimally and need to be obtained from the diet because our body can’t produce these.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential polyunsaturated fatty acids. Essential means that our body cannot make omega-3s on its own, so we need to consume them in the diet.
The 3 main omega-3 fatty acids we’re talking about are:
Each of these omega-3 fatty acids (O3FA) have slightly different roles and benefits in the body. The majority of benefits relating to performance are associated with EPA and DHA because ALA, which is found in plant-based foods, needs to be converted to EPA and DHA in the body where the rate of conversion is relatively low. EPA and DHA are more readily absorbed in the body and are primarily found in marine-based sources including salmon, tuna and other fatty fish.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a key component of the body’s cells, known as the cell membrane phospholipid bilayer, which means that these fatty acids can have an influence across most tissues in the body. Studies have linked omega-3 fatty acid serum levels with:
Athletes may have higher requirements for O3FA based on the relationship between O3FA and inflammation, particularly when training volumes are high or during injured states. Specific intake recommendations have not been set for the athlete population compared to the general population, where a combined intake of 500-600mg of EPA + DHA is generally recommended per day (at a minimum). Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids may be necessary for many athletes, particularly those who don’t meet their requirements through food alone. In a number of studies (Ritz et al., 2020), a large proportion of athletes whose diet intakes and blood O3FA levels were analysed were found to have low O3FA status. Given the importance of O3FA in many areas of health and in particular recovery, this provides important data to suggest that many athletes may need to supplement to meet their daily needs.
From an athlete perspective, consuming 1000mg of combined EPA + DHA O3FA supplements has been linked to reduced physiological strain, better management of exercise-induced inflammation, and during immobilisation (such as injury) it could potentially help in reducing muscle loss. Other benefits found in research include:
Currently, there are a range of sources citing different amounts of omega-3 to aim for in both the general population and for athletes. The Australian Institute of Sport summarises the current evidence for fish oil consumption in athletes below:
Most commonly, omega-3 is found in fish oil capsules or oils. The dose of EPA and DHA will vary between brands. Omega-3 can also be found in krill oil tablets, and sourced from algal oil for those on vegan or vegetarian diets. It is recommended to take fish oil capsules at the same time as food to maximise EPA and DHA digestion and absorption.
Depending on your needs, as above, look for a supplement that contains the optimal amount of combined EPA and DHA for your needs (i.e. at minimum 500mg, up to 1000-2000mg for a non-fish eater or during an injured state). Ensure that any supplement you choose is batch tested through Informed Sport or HASTA, and speak with your Sports Dietitian who can assess your diet and your training loads to assess your need for supplements and the best dose/strategy for you.