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  Last updated: 1/15/2016


Over the last 10 years, we have been hearing more and more about antioxidants - vitamins (C, E, and beta carotene) that neutralize dangerous compounds known as free radicals. Although the focus of much of the discussion on the use of antioxidants has been focused on cardiovascular health, there has been a suggestion that free radicals may contribute to a slow recovery after tough rides (and thus antioxidants may speed up recovery). Many drinks, such as MonaVie offer antioxidants and multiple vitamins. Whether they are helpful or not is up to you to decide as there are no clinical studies to support their benefit.

What is a free radical? It is a molecule with an unpaired electron, and a normal by product of all biologic systems (exercising or not). These free radicals are unstable and can produce cellular damage such as lipid peroxidation (damage of lipid membranes) and changes in membrane protein structure - both of which have been suggested as possible culprits in the development of heart disease and cancer. An antioxidant, as the name suggests, can neutralize free radicals before they interact with living tissue, detoxifying them into water and oxygen.

A review of studies on the role of anti-oxidants in exercise suggests that although exercise does increase the rate of lipid peroxidation (the formation of free radicals), there is also a rise in the natural antioxidant activity in the blood. And with regular training, the antioxidant defense system increases even further. There is little data as to which has the upper hand in this balancing act - the free radicals or the defenses. There has been speculation that the "weekend warriors" who do not have a regular training program, might be more susceptible to free radical damage. However, there is no convincing evidence that supplements of antioxidants are of any value in counteracting the potential effects of free radicals, for either competitive cyclists or recreational exercisers.

One study suggested that the use of antioxidants in the form of vitamins C, E, and beta carotene decreased muscle damage in a group of runners as compared to a control group, and there are numerous anecdotal reports that vitamin C taken before a ride diminished the amount of muscle soreness the next day. The only controlled studies were with 600 IU of vit E for 2 days before exercise (no effect) and a second with 3 grams of vit C per day for 3 days before and 4 days after an exercise bout (reduced soreness). However, none have suggested a beneficial effect of any of the antioxidant vitamins on actual exercise performance or the rate of post-exercise recovery in athletes eating a balanced diet.

There is considerable speculation on the long term benefits of antioxidants in general. A study of nurses and male professionals published in 1993 demonstrated a lower rate of heart disease in those taking Vit E supplements. And a study from China indicated that the use of a multivitamin, containing antioxidants among other things, lowered the cancer death rate by 13%. However a more recent study (1996) indicated the opposite, that patients at risk for lung cancer had a HIGHER cancer rate if they took beta carotene supplements, and the study was terminated early because of those results.

How about antioxidants in cardiovascular disease - an area where there has been considerable interest and research? The most recent study demonstrated no benefit of antioxidants over placebo in blunting the effect of atherosclerosis, and indeed even suggested some harm in that antioxidants appeared to blunt the effectiveness of a proven therapy (simvastatin-niacin). As an aside, there has been interest in the benefits of other vitamins (B vitamins and folate) in the treatment of coronary artery disease - via their effect on homocysteine metabolism. The evidence is strong enough that one of my cardiology partners routinely puts his post angioplasty patients on a multivitamin plus an additional 400 mcg of folic acid and 50 mg of vitamin B6.

The bottom line is that very little evidence to support the short term benefit of antioxidants for the competitive athlete - and plenty of controversy as to any long term health benefits. Although there is no evidence that they will do you any harm in the usual doses, mega-doses have been reported to have side effects and actually decrease optimum physical performance.

Then in 2014, a review of antioxidants suggested that free radicals were not toxic, but rather important as a cell signalling mechanism involved in promoting muscle health. And then a paper in 2015, investigating the mechanism by which interval training improved performance, concluded "...(these changes) did not occur in muscles exposed to antioxidant, which offers an explanation for why antioxidants blunt effects of endurance training." So it appears that for the serious athlete, there is little evidence for a benefit with antioxidant supplements and instead evidence that they may have a negative impact on performance improvement.

And recently the following article suggested that not only do the benefits of reservatol (an antioxidant) NOT translate from an animal model to humans, but it actually appears to have a detrimental effect on aerobic training.

My bottom line? As there is general agreement on the health benefits of fuits and vegetables, which contain not only vitamins and antioxidants, but also other healthful micronutrients, and no proof that antioxidant supplements are of any health benefit, increasing the fruits and vegetables in our diet seems to be the best approach.

Following is a list of natural sources of antioxidants:


Physical trauma and micro tears are the most likely explanation for post exercise muscle pain. But free radicals (oxidative stress) have been suggested with antioxidants as a possible treatment. This is an interesting blog , well referenced although I could only read the abstracts and not the complete articles, that suggests you might be able to improve recovery by reducing exercise related oxidative stress.

Data suggests a benefit from this dietary approach as measured both by hard numbers (muscle enzymes - CK) as well as less soreness (DOMS) after exercise. (I have often wondered about CK levels as a way to quantify post exercise muscle injury and soreness, and this is the first article I've seen that provides hard numbers.)

Whether the benefit is from less oxidative stress or some other factor, the studies show benefits from

And if you would like a recipe to help you get started, I found this one shortly after. Substitute (or add) some cherries or grapes and you will be on your way.

Questions on content or suggestions to improve this page are appreciated.

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