June 19, 2014 By Shelley Harper

Omega-3 Fatty Acids and their Impact on Athlete Performance



Have you ever heard someone talking about how great omega-3s are for your body? Have you seen fish oil and other supplements boasting omega-3 nutritional benefits? I have and because of these claims I made sure to incorporate these fatty acids in my diet throughout college. Looking back, I realized that I didn’t know exactly why I was so adamant about making sure I got in my omega-3s. Back then, I had not done any research on the topic and relied on others claims to fuel my salmon and flax seed consumption. That was the past, and now I have done the appropriate research and am ready to explain to you why you should consume omega-3s and how these fatty acids can improve your athletic performance.

A quick review: saturated vs. unsaturated fats

We need fat in our diet, however not all fat is created equal. Saturated fats are found in processed foods and many animal products, while unsaturated fats are found in nuts, seeds, avocados and fish. The different molecular structures of these fats make saturated fats unhealthy as they raise your cholesterol. On the other hand, unsaturated fats (which include omega-3 fatty acids) are heart-healthy and work to lower your bad cholesterol while raise your good cholesterol. You can find more information on good v. bad cholesterol here.

What exactly are omega-3 fatty acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids, meaning they contain a double bond on the third carbon of the carbon chain. Three types of omega-3 fatty acids that are involved in the human physiology are ALA, EPA and DHA. ALA fatty acids are found in plant-based products and can be converted into EPA and DHA inside the body. EPA and DHA are most prominently found in fatty fish, like salmon. These essential fatty acids cannot be made by our bodies and must be obtained through food consumption.

Why are they important for overall health?

Omega-3 fatty acids aid in numerous functions of the athlete’s body. They are most commonly praised for their heart-healthy benefits, such as reducing the risk of heart disease. Omega-3 consumption works to prevent cardiovascular disease by reducing blood clotting in the vessel walls, which helps to reduce ventricular arrhythmia. In addition, there are promising results that omega-3s have beneficial effects in many other chronic diseases including hypertension, type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and coronary heart disease.

Omega-3s and Athletics

Not only do Omega-3s reduce your risk of chronic diseases in the future, but they also have anti-inflammatory properties that can benefit your athletic endeavors today! Kelly Juries et al. conducted a study that showed omega-3 supplementation in an athlete’s diet can help minimize post workout soreness and inflammation. This reduction in inflammation can help reduce tissue damage and get you get for your next workout.

Omega-3 rich food sources

Fish oil

While there is no set daily-recommended intake for EPA and DHA omega-3s, through my research I found that 500 milligrams per day seems to be the average minimum recommendation by doctors and nutritionists. Here are some food sources that can help you meet that goal:


Cold-Water Fish:

  • Salmon (3oz): 2000 milligrams
  • Wild Blue-fin Tuna (3oz): 1400 milligrams
  • Canned Light Tuna (3oz): 240 milligrams

Other Sources of Omega-3:

  • Flax Seeds (1 tbsp): 2000 milligrams
  • Walnuts (1oz): 550 milligrams
  • Brussels Sprouts (1/2 cup): 135milligrams
  • Soybeans (1/2 cup): 1200 milligrams
Final Thoughts

Omega-3s can provide lots of health benefits. Aside from the nutritional factors, they can also help reduce soreness after a tough workout due to their anti-inflammatory properties. Omega-3s can be found in many food products and are most commonly found in cold-water fish, nuts and seeds. Check in with your current diet to make sure you are getting your daily dose of omega-3s!



  • Jouris, Kelly et. al. The Effect of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation on the Inflammatory Response to eccentric strength exercise. J Sports Sci Med. 2011 Sep 1;10(3):432-8
  • http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/omega-3/
  • Ruxton, C.H.S. et. al. The health benefits of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: a review of the evidence. The British Dietetic Association: J Hum Nutr Dietet, 17, pp. 449–459
  • http://seafoodhealthfacts.org/seafood_nutrition/practitioners/omega3_content.php
  • Flock, MR. et. al. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids: time to establish a dietary reference intake. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24117792. Nutr Rev. 2013 Oct;71(10):692-707
  • Simopoulos, Artemis P. Essential fatty acids in health and chronic disease. Am J Clin Nutr
  • http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/nut-and-seed-products/3163/2

 For additional content on nutrition's impact on health, check out this article.

About the Author

Shelley Harper

Shelley graduated from UC Berkeley in 2012 majoring in Integrative Biology and is currently applying to nursing school. She competed on the women’s swim team at Cal and contributed to three NCAA Championship team titles in her four years. Shelley’s interest in exercise physiology was sparked after discovering connections between the materials learned in her anatomy lab and her athletic endeavors. It is her goal to share this knowledge and inspire other athletes to make these connections to help them reach their personal goals. After finishing her swimming career in 2012, Shelley is now a triathlete utilizing her background in exercise physiology to aid this athletic transition.

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