Sore muscles after training or climbing? Cherry juice might help.

Marisa Michael, MSc, RDN, CSSD is a Certified Sports Dietitian and author of Nutrition for climbers: fuel for sending. She serves on the USA Climbing Medical Committee and has a private practice in Portland, Oregon. Find it online at or on Instagram @realnutritiondietitian for nutritional coaching, workshops and writing services.

Antioxidants seem to be a buzzword. It’s one of those things you think you need to include in your diet, but only vaguely know how and what they are, let alone what they’re supposed to do for your body. Read on to demystify antioxidants and what they can do for you as a climber.

What is an antioxidant? These are components found in food that help neutralize free radicals in your cells. Free radicals are potentially harmful compounds that, if too high, increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and inflammation. Free radicals cannot be entirely avoided. Your body produces them during normal processes such as the immune system fighting an infection.

Exercise like the one you do for rock climbing produces free radicals, so hitting the sidelines or doing sessions on tall walls is a double-edged sword. Other sources of this oxidative stress include air pollution, alcohol consumption, radiation, and excessive intakes of vitamin C and vitamin E, which is ironic since both of these vitamins are antioxidants.

What are common antioxidants? Your body has its own system for producing antioxidants that fight free radicals. Common dietary and supplement sources include vitamin C, vitamin E, coenzyme Q10, flavonoids, polyphenols, and carotenoids. You may have heard of these terms, but aren’t sure what they are and how to incorporate them into your diet.

What are some food sources of antioxidants? Fruits and vegetables are full of antioxidants. Whole grains, coffee and legumes contain antioxidants. Eating fresh or frozen (because produce is frozen right at harvest time) is your best bet, as produce loses nutrients after harvest. The longer products are stored or cooked, the more nutrients are lost. Cooking vegetables for as short a time as possible will help preserve antioxidants that may otherwise be destroyed by heating. Choose steaming or sautéing over boiling or slow cooking, and eat raw fruit.

Certain spices also help contribute to your antioxidant intake. Cinnamon, turmeric, sage, thyme, black pepper, and ginger all have high antioxidant power.

Polyphenols Flavonoids Carotenoids
Source of food Berries, nuts, oats, dark chocolate Purple produce (red grapes, eggplant, berries), apples, green leafy vegetables, onions, asparagus, blueberries, green tea Orange/red produce (carrots, squash, tomatoes, watermelon, grapefruit, guava, papaya, sweet potato, pumpkin, corn) and green produce (spinach, kale, peas, Brussels sprouts, broccoli)
A function Protects against heart disease, inflammation, type 2 diabetes Protects against heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and viruses Protects against heart disease, eye disease and cognitive decline.

What can they do for me as a climber? Antioxidants can contribute to overall health, decrease muscle soreness and decrease inflammation. Tart cherry juice, which is full of antioxidants, has been shown in some studies to decrease muscle soreness. Try 12 ounces at bedtime after a particularly strenuous session.

Can I go overboard with antioxidants? Yes! By sticking to food sources rather than supplements and pills, you’ll get a wide variety of nutrients and antioxidants without worrying about overdosing. High doses of vitamin C can lead to diarrhea, kidney stones and iron overload. High doses of vitamin A can lead to joint and bone pain, hair loss and liver damage. Vitamin D toxicity can lead to hypercalcemia, constipation, and kidney damage. In general, do not take a supplement unless you have a known deficiency and are told to do so by a doctor.

If you’re tempted to take an antioxidant supplement just because it sounds like a good idea, Caitlin Holmescertified nutrition specialist, warns: “Unfortunately, antioxidants are not site-specific, which means we can’t say for sure if taking them produces the result we want.”

Consider this: an equivocal but growing body of evidence suggests that taking an antioxidant supplement can blunt training adaptations. (Merry & Ristow, 2016, Do antioxidant supplements interfere with skeletal muscle adaptation to exercise training?, J Physiol, 594(18): 5135-5147). This is because exercise produces free radicals which act as signaling molecules allowing your body to adapt to the training load. Some free radicals are helpful: they tell your body it’s under stress and signal it to adapt. It helps both skeletal muscles and cardiovascular fitness.

Holmes explains, “We don’t yet understand enough about antioxidants, their mechanisms of action, or their impact on other reactions in the body. Taking antioxidants can actually turn off some important signaling in the body.

Do not undermine your hard climbing sessions by taking an antioxidant supplement unless specifically warranted and directed by your doctor (such as micronutrient deficiency). Just get what you need in food.

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Richard V. Johnson