Free radicals (unstable atoms that damage cells) can crop up in your body thanks to a slew of reasons: poor sleep, booze overkill, pollution, travel, a crappy diet, overtraining, and much more. And though what’s happening on a cellular level in your body may not be your first priority, when it comes to training for OCR, it probably should be.
When left unchecked, free radicals can cause cellular breakdown which speeds up aging, negatively impacts your immune system, and worse yet, slows recovery. How? Basically, free radicals, a.k.a. unbalanced electrons, attack macromolecules, a.k.a. fats, carbs, proteins, and even DNA, which disrupts the biochemical processes that keep your body functioning. (More on how this works in a second.)
Over time, this constant molecular siege can cause damage called oxidative stress, which contributes to the development of heart disease, cancer, neurological diseases (like Alzheimers), pulmonary diseases (like COPD), and arthritis. It can also stunt your training and decrease your exercise performance by damaging muscle tissue.
“[Free radicals] can be caused by too-intense training sessions, too frequently,” says Marley Oldham Carnes, MS, RDN, CSCS. “Thus, it’s important to have a well-balanced diet, and training plan that pushes your limits but also allows for moderate-exercise training sessions and active-recovery days. This helps fight free radicals by producing more antioxidants.”
According to a recent study in Antioxidants, free radicals generated by working out can play a positive role in adaptations from exercise (i.e. getting stronger, faster, and fitter), but only when a well-balanced recovery program and an antioxidant-rich diet work to counteract free-radical imbalance. In short, resting up and eating right is crucial.
The good news? Antioxidants — which come from proper diet and training — are our body’s natural tool to protect cells from damage that free radicals cause. Here’s why a regular dose of ‘em will support your fitness efforts from the inside out. Plus, pro-nutritionist advice to optimize your antioxidant intake and improve your cellular health so you can stride out more powerful than ever before.
The Science 101: Free Radicals in the Body
Here’s the quick and dirty on free radicals: how they actually form, and how they impact your cells — the building blocks to your overall wellness.
Molecules like their electrons to exist in oppositely-charged pairs. When they don’t, they become imbalanced: negatives look for positives, and vice versa. “This is when free radicals are born,” says Oldham Carnes. “These unstable free radicals aim to pair their electrons, and how do they do so? They ‘attack’ and damage other cells to ‘steal’ their electrons. This causes a chain reaction of free-radical formation that continues until we have a willing donor of an electron — an antioxidant — that breaks the chain in this process.”
In other words, antioxidants swoop in to save the day. They stop an excess of unstable electrons from floating around causing oxidative stress and screwing with your metabolic process, which screws with short-term performance and long-term disease.
Easy Pro Tips to Up Your Antioxidants (+ Mitigate Free Radicals!)
Eat Your Fruits & Veggies (And Don't Skimp On Servings)
According to the CDC, about 90% of Americans aren’t eating the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. And yes, this includes fitness enthusiasts. “Many athletes fall into this eating pattern as well, and will often skip the green stuff and instead turn to highly-processed health foods or supplements that aren’t quite the same compared to whole, real foods,” says Oldham Carnes.
By counting your fruit and veg servings, you can put your body way ahead of the curve. As a quick rule of thumb, she recommends aiming to eat at least three colors of fruits/veggies at each meal, or making half of your plate veggies at lunch and dinner.
Also, don’t discredit frozen fruits and veggies. “Often they are more affordable, last longer, and can be harvested at their peak and flash frozen,” she says. Frozen fruit or veggies make a solid antioxidant-rich addition to your post-workout smoothie and you barely have to think about it. No excuses.
Smarten Up Your Snacks
Outside of meals, be sure to make your snacks work for you, too. With the right macronutrient food pairings, you can increase your energy levels and boost your antioxidant intake at the same time. “Pairing a high protein or healthy fat with an antioxidant-rich carbohydrate is one of the best ways to also keep blood sugars stable and keep athletes optimally fueled and satisfied,” says Oldham Carnes. Here are her favorite food pairings with antioxidant-rich foods (many of which come from the *USDA top 20 antioxidant foods list).
Fat + Carb Combos:
- Cashews and *blackberries
- Macadamia nuts and *cherries
- *Pecans and dried *cranberries
- Peanut butter and *apple (red, Gala, Granny Smith)
Protein + Carb Combos:
- Nonfat Greek yogurt and *blueberries
- Boiled egg and *strawberries
- Reduced-fat string cheese and *plum
- Beef jerky and prunes
- Reduced-fat cottage cheese and *black beans
BONUS: Optimize Your Meals & Spice Them Up
You should also target your carbohydrate servings to include antioxidant-rich foods, like beans (red, kidney, pinto, or black), or russet potatoes, says Oldham Carnes. “Adding a side salad of dark, leafy greens to meals and topping them with berries, nuts, and artichokes is a great way to enhance a quality-carb serving.”
Lastly, spice things up. “Adding spices and herbs to dishes is a super easy way to increase antioxidant intake,” she says. Get creative in the kitchen with the following:
Cinnamon, oregano, turmeric, cumin, parsley, basil, curry powder, mustard seed, ginger, pepper, chili powder, paprika, garlic, coriander, onion, and cardamom
Sage, thyme, marjoram, tarragon, peppermint, oregano, savory, basil, and dill weed
HINT: Sometimes it’s tough to get all of the antioxidants needed to stay on top of repair and recovery through your diet alone. For a comprehensive approach to fighting free radicals, consider supplementing with Sur’s Immunity: a new blend of antioxidants from 29 fruits and vegetables that can help fill in antioxidant gaps of even the most well-balanced diet.