Omega-3: Magic Fat for Speed











Who would have thought that the right fatty food could do so much for speed power athletes? With all the powders, pills, ‘sport drinks’, energy bars, and even Jell-O cubes, the delicious answer to improved sports can be eaten with a fork. DHA-rich omega-3 fats can improve your reactions, your strength, your recovery, and even your intelligence. Here’s how…

Speed is all about applying huge force with the foot on the ground for as little as 1/10 of a second. It is developed by training at 100% output when the body is rested and the nervous system is charged for action. The training must be so intense that you regularly cross into the danger zone of getting a joint or muscle injury. If you don’t train intensely enough you won’t improve. Train too much and you won’t improve. For elite athletes, finding the training sweet spot often winds up in the kitchen.

Virtually every elite athlete knows the importance of dietary protein. Most know that carbohydrates need to be carefully selected. Precious few know that fats are the real dietary key to speed. The body doesn’t use these fats for short term bursts of speed or power, instead for long workouts and for recovery. Long workouts are the norm for speed and power, and the workouts consist of many short bursts of energy – interval training, weight training, and plyometrics. After an hour of high intensity exercise when the body is burning carbohydrates for fuel, fats begin to be broken down for energy and more importantly, converted into fuel for your nervous system.

The fuel for speed training is quite different from the fuel for competitive speed. In a 10 second burst of top speed the fuel is stored up ATP plus creatine phosphate, not the burning of carbohydrates (glycolysis). The dilemma is that in order to develop higher speed, you need to train the body at the highest level of output, rest, and then train again. This often demands a practice of two hours of dynamic flexibility, mechanics, high speed bursts, plyometric bursts, intense weight training, and lots of walking around to recover.

The fuel for this comes from glycolysis. However, when you tap into glycolysis, you utilize a central nervous system (CNS) that is fatigued and underperforming. The intensity of the training causes joints and especially the hamstring muscles to become highly inflamed and highly susceptible to injury. Like a fire alarm, the CNS is called into action. How the CNS performs its duties to put out the fire and get you back into action depends upon how it has been trained and how it has been fed.

As the speed training session ends, fats are burnt for energy. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) not only provide last resort energy, they help the body manufacture nerve cells. EFAs act as building blocks for the CNS with the creation of nerve fibers, nerve cell membranes, and myelinated sheaths around nerve fibers. Unless you help your CNS to fully recharge for the next speed session, your training will be at a level well below optimum, leading to stagnation or even a worsening of speed. A fatigued CNS cannot optimally coordinate muscle action that is vital to top performance in elite athletics. Athletic form and technique mistakes can therefore be traced back to CNS fatigue.

Motor (movement) learning is the objective of every speed training session. It is stimulating yourself, keeping the body alert and fresh, not the dulling of senses. Motor learning leads to the game breaking plays performed at ultra high speed with dancer-like body control. To get to this level of performance, your preparation must also be at blinding speed and agility. This means to train not only fast, but rested and fully recovered from the last workout.

Understanding this dilemma of CNS fatigue is the missing link in the formula for speed and explosion. By manipulating the intense work with sufficient rest and the right nutrients, the nervous system can be at its peak for game breaking performance. For elite athletes, it is the care and feeding of the CNS that brings the greatest results in speed. To develop and perform at optimal speed, recovery is absolutely essential and nutrients are at the core of recovery. Thus what you eat is a key part of the training of the body and the CNS.

Fats and the brain

Get most of your omega-3 from the right food, then supplement  

Brain cells have membranes and spider-like synaptic endings on neurons. These neurons are made up of substances found in EFAs, the most important of which is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). When a signal is sent by the brain, it does so in a semi/liquid chemical/electric medium. This liquid fat is similar to the electric signal sent in a car battery. The liquid fat that the brain uses must have high concentrations of DHA. The more DHA that we consume in our diet, the higher DHA level in the brain, and the better the brain functions.1 Research is clear that not only do athletes need to consume fats, those fats need to be the right ones with high levels of DHA.2 

Brain cell membranes and synaptic endings of neurons are composed of DHA. This is the mechanism that makes the entire nervous system work optimally. When we consume sufficient DHA, the neurotransmitters in the brain help brain cells better communicate with one another.Although our liquid fat medium of DHA is extremely important to brain function, it is consumed in alarmingly low amounts in the modern diet.

Research by Kalmijn et al shows that higher intake of DHA fatty acids significantly improve brain function.4 Brain cell signaling is greatly aided by a diet rich in DHA food, and this is of tremendous importance for speed development because messages can be more rapidly sent and interpreted within the nervous system and relayed to muscles.

Fats with DHA have a dramatic effect on brain neurotransmitters and are activated with enzymes. It’s as if DHA locates a hidden switch within the brain that turns on the motor. According to research by McCain and Ames, DHA then influences the chemical/electrical signaling systems of the brain, instantly messaging orders for muscular action more rapidly.5

Because DHA is food, there are no side effects to consumption, nothing remotely similar to the side effects from man-made chemical medicines. Man-made sport supplements must be carefully measured to be safely consumed – not so when you eat fatty foods. In fact civilizations known to have consumed the highest DHA rich fat diets have consistently been shown to have the highest cognitive function.6

Researchers Stordy and Nicholl in their book The LCP Solution state that learning disorders “appear to be associated with an inborn error of metabolism affecting the conversion of shorter chain EFAs into the longer chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPs) and the incorporation of sufficient amounts of them into cell membranes.” They state that children need high levels of “… LCPs, which are the keys to brain function, required for the normal, effective, rapid-fire communications between neurons.” LPC is just another way to describe docosahexaenoic acid, our friend DHA.7

Other researchers have come to a similar conclusion. A study led by Dr. Madeleine Portwood reported that three months of DHA-rich oil supplementation improved teenagers’ attention scores by a factor of four.8 The Weston Price Foundation has published studies by Dr. David Horrobin of the University of Montreal that shows how a DHA-rich diet is an underused means of physical and mental development. Horrobin believed that DHA acted like a key in the body that opened the door to let in the benefits of critical minerals for cognitive development.9

As soon as an athlete learns that nurturing the CNS is the foundation of speed and power, they can train and eat their way to perform significantly better. Here is how to optimally signal the body to be explosive and react, to do so more forcefully, and to recover better afterwards. You’ll be able to train harder and longer at a considerably higher level of output. You’ll quickly recover from the damage done by intense interval training, and enter the next workout better prepared.

Omega-3 for explosive training

Explosive plyometrics put enormous stress on the hamstrings

All athletes who train explosively risk pulling a hamstring muscle. Omega-3 has repeatedly been shown to reduce muscle inflammation and soreness. Dozens of research papers have been published about how omega-3 fats have also been shown to augment blood flow to muscles during exercise, decrease muscle soreness by 35%, reduce swelling, and increase range of motion after damaging exercise. So, what are these omega-3 fats we read so much about?

Every cell in the body has a cell membrane. These are made of essential fatty acids, mostly omega-6 (linoleic acid) and omega-3 (linolenic acid) fatty acids. For athletes, the omega name is chemistry lingo to help us select those fats which are best. Thick omega-6 fats tend to attach to cell membrane and become hardened, causing problems for nutrients and hormones to transfer. Thin omega-3 fats tend to attach to the membranes and become more elastic, allowing for easier transfer of nutrients and hormones. Through research and practical experience, elite athletes find that a diet featuring omega-6 fatty acids causes inflammation and swelling.

Although mankind evolved over millions of years consuming a 1:1 ratio of these fatty acids, we now consume 20 times as much omega-6 fats as we do omega-3.10,11 Food suppliers have used selective grain breeding to create grains that have high levels of omega 6-fatty acids. These modern grains (wheat, corn, and soy) are everywhere, from cereal to bread to ketchup to vegetable oils and 3,000 other foods in the American diet. Commercial grains laden with omega-6s are the primary feed for commercial livestock, poultry, and commercial fish farming. When we consume commercial meat, chicken, milk, or fish from a commercial fish farm, we are ingesting these omega-6s, the wrong fats for speed. As I stated in my book, The Speed Power Athlete, “An optimally functioning and stimulated CNS is absolutely essential for a speed/power athlete and the tool to get this is omega 3-fatty acids.”12

Some omega-6 is vital – this is after all half of the fatty acids we evolved with. Olive oil, for example, is made up of 90% omega-6, but it still should be consumed by athletes due to its tremendous anti-inflammatory properties. Thus, choose your omega-6 very carefully so as to find a 1:1 omega balance. This choice is in fact much more difficult than it seems, as omega-6 foods are everywhere and omega-3 foods are very hard to find.

Even the way you cook the foods that you select plays a big part in your eventual omega balance. Standard dietary seed and vegetable cooking oils lead to muscle and joint inflammation when they are the standard intake. The reason is that the body uses the same enzymes to convert the omega-6 and the omega-3 fats into a form that can be used by the body. Thus if you eat too many omega-6 fats there won’t be enough enzymes available to convert the omega-3s. Vegetable oil, canola oil, safflower oil and peanut oil are highly inflammatory omega-6 cooking oils and should be eliminated from the diet of a serious athlete.

Will you be able to apply more strength on to the ground by consuming omega-3 DHA fats? Researchers say yes. Research by Gomez et al states that strength is gained on an omega-3 diet in part because cross-sectional muscle size is increased in relation to overall body mass.13  According to Macalouso et al, DHA causes an anabolic effect on exercise, building more muscle and more muscle output.14 In a study of almost 3,000 adults, researchers found a diet rich in DHA and EPA significantly increased grip strength.15 Not only is strength improved with DHA, but a study by Rodacki et al found that the rate of expression of strength (rate coding) and functional exercise capacity are also significantly improved.16  

Omega-3 DHA fats improve the effects of strength training as well. A central target for speed development is the building of hamstring muscles while decreasing body fat in order to improve the force to mass ratio. Omega-3 is a great tool to help this. Recent research by Noreen et al found that participants taking DHA-rich fish oil for six weeks improved their body composition by increasing lean muscle mass and decreasing fat mass.17 There is evidence that omega-3 DHA fats improve work capacity. Research by Tartibian et al indicates that DHA improves the function and capacity of the lungs of athletes during and after exercise. A comprehensive three month study showed that elite wrestlers who used supplemental omega-3s experienced improvements in lung capacity, including lung volume.18

Don’t be so irritating!

Watching an athlete pull a hamstring should make you think of DHA

Hamstring injuries that put an athlete out of commission for weeks or even months can be significantly reduced with the consumption of DHA-rich foods. There is little doubt that the battle against muscle irritation and inflammation starts with DHA. A diet with ample DHA helps athletes recover faster after intense workouts. A speed power athlete must make absolutely sure that their nerves and muscles bounce back to normal before yet another hard workout or a hamstring injury will be sure to come.

DHA reduces irritation and inflammation of joints and muscles, allowing for higher intensity work without extended time off. Improving your diet to feature DHA rich foods is a step in the direction of hamstring health. This information is backed by a library of research.

Fetterman and Zdanowicz found that DHA is effective in the prevention and treatment of muscle inflammation.19

•Simopoulos found that high omega-6 consumption in relation of omega-3s increases inflammation.20

•Nelson et al found that omega-3 fatty acids decrease inflammation.21

•Schoenfeld found that omega-3’s decrease pro-inflammatory anachidonic acid molecules that affect large muscles.22

•Jouris et al found that post-exercise muscular soreness was decreased 15% by consuming DHA and EPA.23

•Calder et al found that Omega-3 DHA rich fatty acids are an effective anti-inflammatory in post surgery recovery.24

The search for omega-3

The fabulous taste of broiled wild salmon, rich in omega-3

By manipulating an athlete’s diet with omega-3 rich foods and taking great caution as to omega-6s, this lipid environment drastically changes the way the body performs. This is serious business for those looking for a way to improve speed and power. NCAA rules now stipulate that scholarship athletes cannot be provided with omega-3 supplements by the college as this gives them an unfair competitive advantage.25 The word is out about omega-3s, but where can you find them?

There are three kinds of omega-3 fats: EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). EPA and DHA are found in the tissue of oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, trout, tuna and mullet. DHA can also be found in free range poultry and eggs, as well as grass fed beef. Due to extensive processing, most dairy products are a poor source for DHA. ALA is found in vegetable sources such as flax seed and pumpkin seeds. Although ALA can be converted in the human body into EPA and DHA, only about 5% of the vegetable source ALA actually gets assimilated.

With the amount of news about the great things that come from omega-3 fats, manufacturers have rushed to make money selling the cheapest and least effective of the omega-3s. When you see a label that states, “Now with Omega-3” what you are seeing is vegetable based AHA added, providing very little dietary gain for a serious athlete. Avoid foods fortified with omega-3s because you don’t know the source or quality of the fat.

Solving the problem of finding omega-3 DHA rich food items in the grocery store stares with avoiding almost everything in the entire grocery store but instead buying range fed eggs, organic poultry, grass fed beef, and cans of DHA-rich seafood. Learn where these jewels are hidden.

The good news is that most of what you need can be found in most grocery stores if you know what to look for. Most grocery stores offer a few organic meats that were raised free of modern feed lots, but they will cost a lot more. With good shopping skills you can get them for not much more than premium meat and eggs. Greatly increasing consumption of free range eggs will be one of the easiest and most effective ways to raise your DHA levels.

The richest source of DHA-rich food is wild cold-water fish, especially wild caught Alaskan Salmon. For cold water fish, the thin viscosity omega-3 oil works like anti-freeze for fish swimming in the polar regions. Wild Alaskan king salmon is the world champion source of omega-3, and it tastes great. Grocery stores rarely have wild Alaskan salmon and when they do, you’ll notice the $20 per pound price tag. Read carefully and be sure the fish is from Alaska, not the Atlantic. Watch out! If you eat fresh salmon at a restaurant, 99% will be fish farm raised, loaded with contaminants, and high in omega-6 due to the diet of commercial grains.

With five minutes of Googling you can find a dozen Alaskan wild caught fish providers that ship directly via Federal Express. You should consider buying a big frozen box, this way you get a better price on shipping. Salmon is a large fish so the largish bones are easy to separate from the meat on the dinner plate. Baked or broiled, this is undoubtedly the most delicious and simple way to get your DHA.

An easy way around this is to buy canned wild salmon which can be prepared a dozen flavorful ways. Cans of wild salmon should become your new “tuna sandwiches” just as long as the mayonnaise is organic and the bread is a non-wheat flatbread. All of these ingredients are sitting in a grocery store waiting for you.


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© Randy Smythe, 2015