What Athletes Need to Know About Inflammation

 No pain, no gain,” is a mantra adopted by many competitive athletes. We often get a sick sense of satisfaction from aching muscles the day after a long training run or strength session.  A sore body is a badge of honor, signifying that we pushed it to the max.  

What most people don’t know, however, is that the satisfaction we might get from these aches and pains is a result of inflammation that can interfere with our next workout or even sideline us completely.  Fortunately, just as foods can fuel our bodies, they can also work to reduce or prevent inflammation and get us our “gains” without all of the pain.

   Unlike many fad diets out there, an anti-inflammatory diet has real science and research to back it up.  Recent research has focused on how the types of fats in our diet influence inflammation in the body. 

Prostaglandins, lipids that act like hormones in the body, surround the site of an injury (for example, the small tears created in muscle fibers during a workout).  The composition of these prostaglandins is determined by the types of fat we consume in our diet.  


Prostaglandins that are rich in omega-6 fatty acids act as pro-inflammatories, while those rich in omega-3 fatty acids combat inflammation. Unfortunately, because of the ever-present omega-6 fat sources in our diet (such as soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil and other commonly used vegetable oils), the typical American diet has a ratio of about 15:1 omega-6 to omega-3 fats.  Unlike the aforementioned vegetable oils, olive oil stands out as a staple of an anti-inflammatory diet.  Rich in monounsaturated fats, olive oil is relatively low in omega-6 fats and provides additional benefits in the form of polyphenols.

Although the ideal ratio of these fats in our diet is yet to be determined, Artemis Simopoulos, president and founder of the nonprofit Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington D.C., found in a study that a ratio closer to 6:1 is optimal for health.   If you are wondering how your ratio stacks up, some labs now offer a fatty acid profile that can be run to determine the level of omega-3 and omega-6 fats in your blood.

Foods that are high in omega-3 fats include fatty fish like tuna, salmon and lake trout as well as vegetarian sources like flaxseed and dark, leafy vegetables, like spinach and kale.     

To decrease inflammation, work on reducing your intake of vegetable oils while increasing foods with omega-3’s.



Another major player in the fight against inflammation is antioxidants, which help neutralize free radicals. Free radicals are atoms, or groups of atoms, that have an uneven number of electrons. In an effort to stabilize themselves, free radicals will bond rapidly, often creating chain reactions inside cells. When they come in contact with cellular components like DNA, entire cells become damaged, contributing to muscle damage and inflammation.

Free radicals usually form in the presence of oxygen, which is plentiful in the body during exercise. They also form when the body undergoes oxidation, a process that helps us break down toxins. 

But antioxidants (anti-meaning against, oxi- referring to oxygen) can neutralize free radicals, easing inflammation. This is why you may hear of athletes “mega-dosing” with supplements like vitamin C and E, as these vitamins serve as some of our most potent antioxidants. However, after reviewing almost 200 sources for a study in Sports Medicine, Katie Slattery, on the Faculty of Health at the University of Technology in Sydney, concluded that these pills could be ineffective, and may even be detrimental to performance. 

The good news? We can get more than enough antioxidants by selecting the right foods.  An ORAC score (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity), used by the USDA, measures antioxidant capacities in various foods. Produce, herbs and spices have high ORAC scores, along with fresh fruits and vegetables that provide a variety of colors. (In this case, “eat the rainbow” isn’t referring to Skittles consumption.)

A diet rich in high-ORAC foods will certainly go a long way to ease inflammation, as will other foods that have been studied specifically for their role in doing the same thing.  Tart cherry juice has become increasingly popular among athletes due to a high concentration of anthocyanin, a compound that works similarly in the body to ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These drugs work to block the production of those prostaglandins, which surround the area with damaged tissue. 

After feeding a group of semi-pro English soccer players 30 milliliters of Montmorency tart cherry concentrate per day, Phillip G. Bell, on the faculty of health and life sciences at Northumbria University in the UK, found that the players recovered faster and had less muscle soreness than those in a control group.


Another food that has recently garnered attention for its anti-inflammatory properties is turmeric, a spice commonly used in Indian cuisine.  Turmeric contains a compound called curcumin, which inhibits enzymes in the body that promote inflammation.  Sounds like a no-lose situation right?  

Unfortunately, reaping the benefits of turmeric isn’t as simple as eating Indian food for every meal.  Curcumin has low bioavailability, so even when you consume copious amounts, very little is actually absorbed in the body.  But before you relegate that turmeric to the back of your spice rack, know that simply pairing it with black pepper can make it a major player in your arsenal of anti-inflammatory superfoods.  A compound in black pepper known as piperine can actually increase the bioavailability of curcumin by about 2,000 percent.6 Now that’s a power combination!

It is important to know that combating inflammation means not only including foods that are beneficial, but also limiting those that do harm.  Sugar and refined grains wreak havoc on our blood sugar, which increases levels of pro-inflammatory messengers known as cytokines.  

Beware of added sugars and don’t be fooled by “natural” sugars like honey, maple syrup and cane sugar.  Metabolically, our body doesn’t know the difference, and excess sugar of any kind will increase levels of inflammation.  Fried foods and saturated fats are other culprits that could be slowing your recovery time, so limit these as much as possible as well.  

Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, pushing yourself to the max is inevitably going to cause some post-workout aches.  However, with smart dietary choices that work to reduce inflammation, that pain doesn’t have to hold you back. 

Jamie Sheahan holds a Master of Science in Dietetics from UVM, and she currently works as the Director of Nutrition at The Edge in Burlington. She’s run a marathon a month for the last 13 months.