NCAA Athletes Fall Far Short of Omega-3 Recommendations

Each day of training, athletes’ muscles are exposed to significant wear and tear created by strength training, stretching, plyometrics, eccentric and concentric contractions, oxidative stress, contusions, inflammation, heat, acidity, and a variety of other factors that fatigue and damage muscle cells.  While periodic fatigue and damage are critical signals that spark performance-improving changes in muscle and other cells, too much fatigue and damage can result in non-functional overreaching or, in the worse cases, a lingering state of overtraining. 

It is clear that nutrition and hydration play major roles in reducing muscle damage and fatigue, promoting recovery between training sessions, and supporting the numerous adaptations that allow for improved performance.  It is also clear that omega-3 fatty acids consumed in the diet are important in helping to stabilize cell membranes,6 reduce muscle damage and soreness,1 stimulate muscle protein synthesis,4 and support healthy inflammatory and antioxidant responses.2  Yet, few athletes appear to consume enough omega-3s to achieve those important benefits.

In a 2020 publication in PLOS One, Peter Ritz and colleagues described their work in assessing the omega-3 status of male and female college athletes.5  The researchers gathered data on 1,528 athletes from nine NCAA Division I universities in California, Georgia, Illinois, Nebraska, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, and Virginia.  The athletes represented 34 different sports (15 male, 19 female); 51% of the athletes were male and 49% were female.

All athletes completed a food-frequency questionnaire to estimate their daily omega-3 intake from foods and supplements.  In addition, 298 of the athletes provided finger-tip blood samples for determination of their omega-3 index, a measure of the percent of omega-3s (EPA + DHA) in the membranes of red blood cells that reflects the omega-3 content of other tissues.  Those athletes represented 21 sports (10 male, 11 female) and 55% were male.

Only 6% of the athletes surveyed consumed 500mg or more of EPA+DHA each day, meeting the current recommendation of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.7  In comparison, one serving of Enhanced Recovery supplies 1,600 mg of omega-3s (820mg DHA, 550mg EPA, 230mg ALA).  The athlete’s suboptimal omega-3 intake was further underscored by the finding that none of the athletes achieved an omega-3 index of 8%, a level associated with the lowest risk of cardiovascular disease.

It will be interesting to see if future studies on Division I athletes show an improvement in omega-3 status that reflects an increased dining-hall emphasis on the consumption of omega-3 foods and supplements.  Athletes at Division II and Division III schools, NAIA schools, high schools, and in club sports that do not offer the same feeding opportunities afforded Division I and professional athletes are well advised to find ways to increase their omega-3 consumption.  Enhanced Recovery is a great-tasting way to accomplish that goal.

  1. Black KE, Witard OC, Baker D, et al. Adding omega-3 fatty acids to a protein-based supplement during pre-season training results in reduced muscle soreness and the better maintenance of explosive power in professional Rugby Union players. Eur J Sport Sci. 2018;18(10):1357-1367.
  2. Calder PC. Marine omega-3 fatty acids and inflammatory processes: Effects, mechanisms and clinical relevance. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta. 2015;1851(4):469-484.
  3. Fenton JI, Gurzell EA, Davidson EA, Harris WS. Red blood cell PUFAs reflect the phospholipid PUFA composition of major organs. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2016;112:12-23.
  4. Philpott JD, Witard OC, Galloway SDR. Applications of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation for sport performance. Res Sports Med. 2018:1-19.
  5. Ritz PP, Rogers MB, Zabinsky JS, et al. Dietary and biological assessment of the omega-3 status of collegiate athletes: a cross-sectional analysis. PLOS One. 2020;15(4):1-16.
  6. Tachtsis B, Camera D, Lacham-Kaplan O. Potential roles of n-3 PUFAs during skeletal muscle growth and regeneration. Nutrients. 2018;10(3).
  7. Vannice G, Rasmussen H. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: dietary fatty acids for healthy adults. J Acad Nutr Dietet. 2014;114(1):136-153.