Our bodies are subject to oxidative stress constantly in our day-to-day to lives. It is well known that diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity create what’s known as reactive oxygen species (ROS), or free radicals. But basic human functions like breathing and digestion, as well as exercise, also create them.
Free radicals are produced regularly and are a very normal part of our metabolism. In fact, they serve a purpose and even benefit us. Similar to having a cold, your body initially is weakened by a particular stressor (in this case, exercise); eventually, you recover and are more resistant to that stressor the next time around (your next workout). This is particularly beneficial for those who engage in regular exercise. While the improvements are slow but consistent, it’s one more way that the body adapts to the demands of activity and can actually help to increase antioxidant levels.
Most of us know that antioxidants—those we produce and those we consume—help protect us from the damage these free radicals may cause. For runners, increased oxidative stress often equates to muscle breakdown and fatigue, not to mention a depleted immune system.
Supplemental antioxidants are the hot topic these days when it comes to athletic performance. However, current research does not support the use of supplemental antioxidants and in fact, this appears to be a case where more is not necessarily better. Antioxidants in excessive amounts can prove to be harmful and end up hindering your performance instead of improving it.
So what’s the best way to boost your immune system and your performance? Eat a varied diet, rich in antioxidants. The synergy of nutrients that occurs naturally in food works in ways that supplements simply can’t replicate.
A daily routine that includes two to three servings of fruit and six or more servings of vegetables per day, plus a variety of nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, legumes, herbs, and spices is a great way to ensure you’re in top fighting shape for your next run or competition.
Dana Pitman is a Registered Dietitian at Hospital for Special Surgery where she provides individual nutrition counseling, frequent lectures on nutrition topics and trends and manages the hospital wide Employee Wellness Program. She is a regular media contributor for the hospital, outside websites and publications, and a total fitness geek.