Recovery from training is a major factor in developing great strength and endurance. It’s as important as the training itself. Athletes who don’t recover from workouts become vulnerable to injury or illness. To help prevent these disorders, the body relies on its natural inflammatory/anti-inflammatory mechanism. Understanding this mechanism can lead to improved racing as well as better overall health.
When injured, the body creates natural inflammation around a wound, making it reddish, swollen and hot. This is called acute inflammation, and is the body’s way of recovering from the daily wear and tear of physical and chemical stress. Athletic training, repetitive motions such as typing or walking and acute injury—a cut hand, a damaged joint, or an irritated stomach—all produce inflammation.
Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, develops when the body is unable to control the inflammatory mechanism. Often in this situation the body produces both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory chemicals due to nutritional imbalances, specifically dietary fats. Also, other causes of inflammation—such as stress, overtraining or too little rest—may contribute to the problem.
Without proper anti-inflammatory actions, even an easy workout can complicate ongoing inflammation issues. Even worse, a multitude of chronic illnesses and diseases, including asthma, allergies, cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, can all be triggered by chronic inflammation. Balancing dietary fat intake is the key to reducing chronic inflammation.
The Balance of Fats
The most important first step in managing the inflammatory process is to assess your use of concentrated fats and oils for cooking, salad dressings and other foods. Removing the types of fats that promote inflammation from your diet and replacing them with more healthful options is the key. Here are some tips:
- When using fats for cooking, baking or sautéing, use only organic butter, ghee, coconut oil or lard.
- Avoid all vegetable, grain, seed and nut oils, including soy, safflower, corn, canola and peanut. These unhealthy oils promote inflammation.
- Organic extra-virgin olive, sesame, and avocado oils can be used if raw, and not cooked.
- Avoid all trans fats (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated).
- Restaurant food, as well as packaged and pre-prepared food, should also be avoided, as it typically contains unhealthy fats.
The second step in managing inflammation is to balance two key fatty acids: Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats. Most people consume too much omega-6 and too little omega-3. Overconsumption of Omega-6 fats has been tied to chronic inflammation. This generally leads to more injury, illness, and ultimately, disease. In the case of athletes, performance is often impaired.
Omega-6 fats are contained in many vegetables and vegetable oils, and these oils should be avoided. Consuming fresh, raw and lightly cooked vegetables at each meal is ideal to get appropriate levels of omega-6. These foods contain an essential fatty acid called linoleic acid, which can have powerful anti-inflammatory effects when taken in smaller amounts. Common omega-6 dietary supplements include black-currant seed, borage, and primrose oils.
Omega-3 fats are found mostly in cold-water ocean fish, and also in beans, flaxseed, walnuts, vegetables, and in wild and grass-fed animals (although in much lower quantities). Fresh, coldwater fish such as salmon, sardines and anchovies, can be helpful because the fat in these fish contains EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), which has powerful anti-inflammatory actions.
Omega-3 fats from non-animal sources such as flax must be converted to EPA by the body. Because the body isn’t particularly good at this, and most people consume too little EPA, it’s best to take a dietary supplement of fish oil containing about 1,000 mg of EPA or more each day.
Other Dietary Factors
In addition to balancing dietary fat and obtaining adequate EPA, a number of other dietary factors also significantly affect inflammation. These include:
- Refined carbohydrates, including sugar and flour, can convert omega-6 fats to inflammatory chemicals.
- A balanced, healthy diet void of junk food provides specific nutrients that assist in controlling inflammation, including vitamins B6, C, E, niacin, and the minerals magnesium, calcium and zinc.
- Adequate intake of quality protein foods.
- Certain phytonutrients found in ginger, turmeric, citrus peel and foods in the onion family—shallots, chives and garlic—reduce inflammation.
- Excess stress generates inflammatory chemicals.
- Aging increases the risk of fat imbalance, and we can compensate for this by being as strict as possible with diet and lifestyle, starting right now.
Testing for Inflammation
The best indicator of chronic inflammation is a blood test for C-reactive protein. If this test finds levels higher than normal, you should temporarily eliminate all anaerobic exercise—including strength training—and perform aerobic-only workouts, while being very strict with the above dietary recommendations until blood tests are normal.
Monitoring all the factors associated with chronic inflammation—injury, sleep and dietary balance—is vital for optimal health and fitness, especially if competitive performance is a goal.