Description: while most athletes would be indignant at any suggestion that their sport does them anything other than good, they should be aware of the wear and tear and the free radical damage that hard physical activity can do to the body. Free radicals are damaging oxidised particles created every time we breathe or metabolise food, a bit like sparks coming off a fire when it burns. The more exercise we do, the more energy is burned and the more free radicals are created. Free radicals can damage many tissues and are a cause of many of today's degenerative diseases. Normally we have antioxidants in the body which can mop up these free radicals, but with hard exercise these can be overwhelmed and the radicals stay for longer than is good for us, and can cause some of the pain and stiffness following exercise. Weight-bearing joints are often overworked and can wear out faster, especially when athletes restart exercising too early with the help of anti-inflammatory drugs. Occasionally, sudden death or cardiac arrest occurs in athletes. Iron loss from ‘foot strike’ is quite common in long distance athletes.
What doctors can do
Their role is to treat diseases, and usually doctors play little role in advising and treating athletes, except when they are injured.
What can you do
Many athletes have coaches who advise them, but it is helpful if they can understand what is best for their bodies – not just to create optimal performance, but what will keep an athlete healthy and well, for life. To reverse the oft used statement, too much concentration on a performance may create “short term gain for long term pain!”
For many athletes, training, training, training dominates their competitive life, and while it is essential to reach peak performance at the right time, it is crucial to have more in life than just ‘the race.’ Make time for family, friends and relaxation. Quality sleep allows the body to repair damage, this usually occurs at night. Eat well, and although carbohydrate-loading before a race helps with the energy stores, between times eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and keep up the protein intake to build and repair muscles.
Ø Do NOT exercise hard when you have ‘the flu’ or other viral illnesses. Occasionally, hard exercise performed when a virus is present can cause heart damage, called cardiomyopathy, and it is not worth it. Train gently but don’t force yourself at these times.
Ø Always warm down at the end of exercise. The reason you pant after exercise is to breathe in more oxygen and blow out carbon dioxide which comes from the lactic acid built up in the muscles. If you suddenly stop exercising this lactic acid will stay in the muscles and damage them. When the hard exercise is finished, walk round using those muscles gently, so that they have a good blood supply, and the lactic acid has been washed out. Continue warming down until breathing has returned to normal.
Almost all athletes realise the need to supplement their diet to:
- Improve their performance
- Speed recovery
- Reduce injury
- Reduce long term health problems
However, many fear the dangers of disqualification if these supplements are not pure in their contents. The 2001 Olympic committee stated that “over 25% of supplements available to athletes contained substances which could have the athletes banned in a drug test." So be cautious about the supplements you choose, make sure they are always made to pharmaceutical standards, read the contents of the label carefully, and preferably use a product which has given athletes a guarantee of purity. Do not blindly take supplements provided by your coach - check the contents and make sure they are guaranteed to be pure. Some companies offer guarantees that athletes taking their products will not test positive (one company even offers a $million guarantee) - I would look for these companies and use their products exclusively.
Athletes need to take the supplements which the rest of the population need, some in higher doses, plus some other supplements which can aid recovery and healing and also may improve performance:
- A good multivitamin/multimineral makes sure that the body has a surfeit of all the nutrients and minerals required to function and to repair damaged tissues. Plenty of antioxidants (vitamins C, E and beta carotene) to neutralise the enormous number of free radicals produced by exercise. Selenium is also essential to help antioxidants function. Note especially the comments * at the bottom of the page, and the production of antioxidants inside the cells.
- Omega 3 fish oils, 1–2 grams daily. These are very important for tissue, joint, ligament and brain health. They keep the tissues supple and also provide improved lubrication in the joints. Make sure the product does not contain toxic mercury.
- Calcium and magnesium, 800-1,000mg/day. Calcium is essential for bone strength, but most people are unaware that it is essential for every muscle contraction. If
there is not enough for the muscles the body will take it out of the bones.
Magnesium is essential for athletes because when a muscle relaxes the magnesium moves into the muscle cells. If there is not enough magnesium, the muscles
cannot relax and cramp develops. Because magnesium is stored inside the cells and not in the blood, blood tests do not give any indication of the magnesium
status and during exercise much magnesium is lost in sweating and breathing.
- Grape seed extract – proanthocyanidins. These are nature’s powerhouse antioxidants, and it is wise to take these all the time or at least on the days of hard
physical exercise. They also have a powerful and safe anti-inflammatory action.
- Glucosamine. This complex sugar is an essential building block for cartilage, and good medical studies have shown that taking glucosamine can actually repair
cartilage and reduce pain.
- Natural Anti-inflammatories. Many athletes take NSAIDS (Voltaren, Celebrex, VIOX) drugs to ‘aid healing’. In fact, these just mask the inflammatory repair
process, and in the long term may well lead to a weakened and damaged joint. Use natural anti-inflammatories – omega 3 fish oils, grape seed extract and
turmeric. The latter has an action similar to the COX2 drugs but is safe and beneficial, and is a very effective treatment for pain..
- Iron. The continual striking of the sole of the foot on hard pavements can damage the red blood cells in the veins on the bottom of the foot so that the haemoglobin
leaks out of them and is lost in the urine (haemoglobinuria). This iron may need to be replaced but it is essential for an athlete to make sure they are not one of the
1 in 300 people who have inherited haemochromatosis, for whom taking iron supplements could be fatal. Long distance or road runners should get their iron levels
- Co-enzyme Q10. This enzyme is found in the mitochondria, the energy furnaces within the cells, especially the muscle cells. CoQ10 is essential in the process of
burning sugars and fats and converting them into energy. CoQ10 levels become lower as we age and also with some drugs, especially the statins. Some athletes
supplement with CoQ10 and improve their performance, but make sure it is quality CoQ10 (in a gel capsule) as cheaper brands are useless.
- Phytonutrients which can encourage the reproduction of mitochondria which create energy inside the cells. A new multi called Cellsentials helps the mTOR switches inside of the cells to recycle the mitochondria more effectively click here.
Sudden death in athletes - This is a very difficult topic to research and advise, because some very fit people do suddenly drop dead while exercising, while others with heart disease die just because it was their time.
If there is any risk of sudden death in an athlete (family history, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, arrhythmic right ventricle, long QT syndrome) they they should probably avoid hard burst activity (sprinting, basketball, tennis, squash, rugby & soccer) and enjoy activity with stable energy expenditure (jogging, swimming, biking etc).
Also extremes of temperature, humidity and altitude should probably be avoided.
There are some investigations which an athlete can ask for if he/she is concerned - full examination including ECG, exercise ECG, echocardiogram, holter monitor and if there is concern about the right ventricle - a MRI heart scan.
What can the athlete do - don't do explosive activity if at risk, and be physically fit. No drugs can help, but optimum magnesium levels and also fish oils may well be preventive (take 800mg magnesium and 1-2 grams of fish oil daily). For those athletes who have had a 'near miss' - implantable defibrillators are available.
Supplements which I would recommend an athlete considers taking - NB make sure they are pure and of pharmaceutical quality which is why I recommend the USANA products with their $1million guarantee:
USANA cellsentials *, Biomega fish oils, Coquinone (coenzyme q10), Active calcium and magnesium, procosa 2 (glucosamine/tumeric) and Proflavanol c (grapeseed extract and vitamin C).