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- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)
The traditional theory goes like this: strenuous exercise produces “reactive oxygen species” (ROS), which cause damage to cells and DNA in the body. Taking antioxidant supplements like vitamins C and E helps to neutralize the ROS, allowing the body to recover more quickly from workouts.
The new theory, in contrast, goes like this: strenuous exercise produces ROS, which signal to the body that it needs to adapt to this new training stress by becoming stronger and more efficient. Taking antioxidant supplements neutralizes the ROS, which means the body doesn’t receive the same signals telling it to adapt, so you make smaller gains in strength and endurance from your training.
So which is true? Back in 2009, a German study found that vitamins C and E did indeed block gains in insulin sensitivity — a key adaptation to exercise — in a group of sedentary volunteers. But in January 2010, a study of cyclists found no difference in fitness parameters like maximal oxygen consumption, power output, lactate threshold and so on between a placebo group and a vitamins C/E group. But then last December, a study with rats found that vitamin E did block gains in mitochondria, a key adaptation to endurance training.
Which brings us to the most recent study, published in March in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. A total of 17 recreational runners did a four-week training program consisting of four interval workouts a week (5x3min hard with 3min jog recovery — a bit of an odd program, but it succeed in significantly boosting VO2max, running economy, 10K time trial performance, etc.). Half the subjects took 1 gram of vitamin C every morning, while the other half took a placebo; the trial was double-blinded, so no one knew who was in which group. The results: no significant differences between the groups.
So where does this leave us? I’m not really sure. The paper discusses a couple of possible explanations. One is that antioxidants do block some training gains but that this study was too small to detect them. With nine subjects in one group and eight in the other, that’s certainly possible. For example, the subjects ran two “YoYo Intermittent Recovery Tests” with slightly different parameters. In the first one, the vitamin C group improved 22% while the placebo group improved only 16%; in the second one, it was the other way around, with the placebo group improving 10% and the vitamin C group improving only 5%. This doesn’t give me a whole lot of confidence in the test-retest variability, or the ability to detect subtle differences in adaptation.
Another possibility relates to the initial fitness of the subjects. The 2009 German study used sedentary, unfit subjects, who thus would be expected to produce very high levels of ROS in response to the unfamiliar stress of exercise. In these subjects, one might expect antioxidant supplements to make a bigger difference to training adaptations. The new study, on the other hand, used subjects with higher initial aerobic fitness (“recreationally active,” not trained athletes). As the saying goes, “exercise is the most powerful antioxidant we have.” So it’s possible that fit subjects already have reasonably effective natural antioxidant defenses in place, so taking additional antioxidant supplements doesn’t make as much (or any) difference.
All of this leaves us with no firm answer — as usual, more studies are needed. My guess (thinking back to my last post about the pros and cons of training on empty) is that we’ll eventually conclude that the answer is “it depends.” Perhaps antioxidant supplements will be helpful during extremely heavy training blocks, but should be avoided as you approach competition. Or perhaps it’s the other way around: let the ROS run wild during heavy training blocks, but take antioxidants to ensure full repair as competition approaches. The latter approach fits with a Portugese study that found that antioxidants may delay muscle repair after heavy workouts, but could allow muscles to actually work harder in the heat of competition. It’s too soon to know for sure.