While there's a wide variety of options for supplements these days (both high quality and otherwise) - as a Strength Coach I'm often hesitant to make specific supplement recommendations to my hockey guys. Any supplement I recommend has to pass three criteria:
- Must be strongly-research backed;
- I’ve seen elite athlete thrive on when adding to their nutrition practices;
- I've personally tried in my own diet.
Fish Oil strongly fits all three of these for me.
Fish oil is one of the new supplements I recommend to all my athletes (and their parents), with research suggesting benefits such as strength, power, speed, and endurance enhancement. There is also growing research showing the cognitive benefits from mental acuity to safeguarding from cognitive degenerative diseases.
This article might get a little science-heavy, so I’ll sum it up here: If you’re an athlete looking for performance/health enhancement, you should be taking fish oil.
What is Fish Oil? Is my regular diet enough?
Fish oil contains two omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. (Note: Omega-3 is completely different than Omega-6, the number doesn’t just mean more). The human body was developed with a 1:1 ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 but today’s modern diet is typically a ratio of 1:20. This means no. Your diet is almost certainly not getting enough Omega-3.
Omega-3 is considered an essential fatty acid because the human body can’t produce them. This is problematic because, without adequate Omega-3 intake, the Omega-6 rich Western diet promotes inflammation in the body.
Supplementing Omega-3 fatty acids through Fish Oil allows the body to counteract this inflammation, which comes with its own host of benefits. Let’s jump into the research and benefits.
Fish Oil Benefit #1: Increased Muscle Strength and Physical Performance
Yes, this is a lofty claim. BUT, there is really strong research (both longitudinal and intervention) to support this.
- Study #1: A longitudinal cross-sectional study explored the relationship between diet and grip strength in 3000 random individuals. They found that grip strength increased 0.43 kg in men (0.48 in women) for every portion of fatty fish eaten per week.
- Study #2: In a more intervention-based study (double-blind), 126 women were broken into strength training or training + fish oil supplementation. Strength gains were found in both groups, but more greatly exaggerated when supplementing fish oil.
Take Away: There appears to be correlational data to suggest that fish oil may support/enhance muscular strength.
Fish Oil for Athletes Benefit 2: Reduced Muscle Damage and Soreness
Bag skates, hill sprints, heavy lifts – chances are as an elite hockey player you’re no stranger to muscle soreness. These high-intensity workouts cause muscle damage which often results in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS, or the reason you can’t get off the toilet after leg day).
This is inflammation is spurred by an omega-6 fatty acid called “arachidonic acid” which increases inflammatory molecules. Omega-3 fatty acids (like those found in fish oil) have been found to reduce this acid, and have been suggested to be an alternative for anti-inflammatory drug use such as imiprothrin.
- Study 3: In a randomized, double-blind (good) study, researchers found that daily fish oil intake was found to reduce exercise-induced exercise soreness by 15%
- Study 4: A one month study found that 1800 mg of daily omega-3 supplementation reduced knee range of motion limitations after intense exercise; suggesting omega-3 may help us get up the stairs after those bag skates or heavy leg days.
Fish Oil for Athletes Benefit #3: Cardiovascular Benefits
Omega-3 fatty acids benefit on cardio-respiratory health and function has been extensively researched in populations with heart disease, and this research should be considered for athletes looking to enhance cardiovascular endurance and function.
Studies have found that fat not only supports cardiovascular performance (fat is not the villain of the nutritional world!), but that omega-3 specifically enhances blood flow, blood pressure, and heart rate at submaximal exercise (5); while also finding reduced whole-body oxygen consumption is elite endurance athletes.
Fish Oil for Athletes Benefit #4: Improved Cognitive Function
Having done formal research in sport psychology, this is the benefit that interests me most; and (although perhaps bias) I’ve found the most benefit personally. I’ve personally found that taking fish oil helps with mental clarity and having fewer days with the mental fog that can accompany a hectic schedule.
The research appears to support this. A recent study found that fish oil may enhance brain-body communication times that are associated with improved attention/focus and reduced reaction times. This study used 21 day double-blind study with elite material artists, and found performance and mood enhancement at the end of the study (6).
This is a growing body of research, so far with wide-ranging benefits from reducing ADHD in children to protecting against neuro-degenerative diseases in patients with Alzheimer’s.
The sports nutrition world is often noisy and polluted with low quality information from companies selling expensive supplements. I often tell my athletes that truly well balanced and structured diet eliminates the need for most supplementation, except fish oil.
Newfoundlander’s or east coasters may get enough fish in their diet, but the majority of us should consider supplementing with a high-quality fish oil. At this time I don't have any specific brand recommendations, but I highly recommend looking for a high quality supplement (don't go cheap!) and head over to your local supplement store to ask for brand recommendations.
Kyle is a Hockey Performance Specialist who’s worked with hundreds of hockey players from Peewee to Pro. A former elite hockey player, Kyle earned his degree in Kinesiology before becoming a Strength Coach that specializes in hockey performance. Today, he runs Relentless Hockey where he works with players across the world, including pros in over 20+ leagues including the NHL, KHL, and OHL.