Should Hockey Players Be Taking Antioxidant Supplements?

hockey antioxidants

In today’s article, I want to provide you a “one stop shop” for all of the research-based information you will ever need on antioxidants supplementation and how they fit into the big picture of hockey performance. 

In the end, you can expect to have gained a ton of knowledge and have one more tool in your toolkit for hockey performance enhancement. 

On Muscle Soreness

If you’re not already familiar with the term Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), I’m willing to bet you’re familiar with how it feels.

Remember the last time you absolutely trashed your legs in the gym, and then your soreness got progressively more painful up until about 48-72hrs later? 

And then even at that point, it still stuck around for a couple more days after that?

Yeah, that’s muscle soreness from intense exercise – and in the research it’s known as DOMS, so I will be using that term frequently throughout this article. Post-exercise soreness is normally a result of three main things:

1.    You haven’t exercised or played hockey in awhile, and now you’re getting back into it.

2.    You are performing movements/exercises your body isn’t accustomed to yet.

3.    You performed very intense work that involved longer eccentric contractions (some know this as “negative reps” in training).

But, with soreness comes pain, and with pain comes discomfort. 

Since people don’t like to be uncomfortable or in pain, it has been an ongoing journey in the hockey strength and conditioning industry to find ways in which we can minimize soreness but still be able to train very hard.

Antioxidants have been demonstrated to help in this area which has lead to many people jumping on board and using them post-workout or after a game, but is blunting soreness really a good idea?

It’s more complicated than you think, and since here at HockeyTraining.com we respect the research and don’t want to just guess when it comes to your performance, I had I look into the REAL data on this one. 

So, let’s look at a major study that was conducted in this area and see what type of information we can drum up for real-world application.

Research Analysis

This was a special type of study, this is what’s known as a “Meta-Analysis” which is a type of research design where a larger number of studies are combined together and then further broken down using statistical analysis in order to determine the size of effect any certain nutrient may have.

A meta-analysis design means much more to people like you and me because as I’m sure you’ve seen in the news and in marketing campaigns… you can easily find one study to “prove” basically anything you want.

Where the real magic in finding truth lies is when you assess the entire body of evidence on a topic and see where the “big picture” of it all is leaning. 

For example, you could have one study that says “yes!” to a certain nutrient or protocol – but then you could also have 10 other studies that demonstrate that it’s useless.

Unfortunately, in many cases supplement companies will grab on to the one study that said “yes!” about a certain nutrient and use that to “back up” their sales pitch – which oftentimes works simply because no one else is aware of the other existing data on that very same nutrient, and since they provided a reference it seems as though they are reputable, when in fact it’s the complete opposite.

So, in order to get real answers, researchers go through a rigorous process to analyze multiple studies all at once and utilize certain statistical systems to determine whether the effect size of the nutrient is worthwhile investigating further and/or utilizing in our everyday lives in order to improve our results or hockey performance.

Long story short (since I want to keep these articles easy to read and applicable), the meta-analysis we are going to look at together involved 50 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials which investigated the impact of antioxidant supplementation on DOMS, performance, and recovery markers.

All super relevant and critical components that make up hockey performance.

The studies involved 1089 participants and each of the studies contributed between 7 and 54 subjects. 

Of important note, there were no studies reviewed that included elite athletes – 7 of the studies were on the sedentary population – and mostly all the studies included the recreationally active population.

The source of the studied antioxidants in the trials were whole foods in 13 of the studies, antioxidant extracts in 19 of the studies, and high doses of Vitamin C or E in the remaining studies.

The Results at A Glance

1.    Antioxidant supplementation reduced muscle pain significantly within the first six hours, at twenty-four hours, and at seventy-two hours post-workout.

2.    After the ninety-sixth hour post-workout, no benefit was observed.

3.    One study reported that all six participants involved using N-Acetyl Cysteine as the antioxidant supplement reported diarrhea, and one subject (out of twenty-six) who drank the tart cherry juice as the antioxidant supplement reported gastrointestinal distress.

4.    There were zero benefits of antioxidant supplementation on muscle tenderness, range of motion, or performance.

5.     Antioxidant use compared to placebo increased post-workout muscle force production.

What Does This Mean For You?

Despite what may seem as impressive results above suggesting that antioxidants reduce post-workout muscle soreness and increase post-workout muscle force production, the results were so minimal as to not even matter in the real world.

Despite the statistical outcome, there is still much more uncertainty here than anything else. 

Especially since we are categorizing hundreds of compounds under the same “antioxidant” umbrella.

Do they all work this way?

Is one better than another?

Will it react identically in an elite athlete and a couch potato?

These are all things we need to keep at the forefront of our mind, we must always be critical thinkers. When we allow people to just throw a paint brush across the board and say “antioxidants do this” – well hold on a second, so you’re telling me all of them do?

I find this very hard to believe.

Not only do antioxidants differ in their source, but they also differ from one another based on their bioavailability, potency, and biological targets (for example, some may have an anti-inflammatory effect whereas others may activate the glutathione pathways).

Don’t get me wrong, despite some of the weaknesses behind this meta-analysis, it still has plenty of strengths as well. 

For example, the strict statistical analysis is something you always want to see, the fact that the trials were double-blind and placebo control adds a major validity component, and that they were able to gauge the effectiveness across such a large population (more people are often always better as it tends to eliminate inter-individual “noise”).

Some may feel it lacks a focus being that there was a combination of both recreationally active and sedentary folks – but I think this only adds to the external validity to large populations. Sure, we didn’t get data on elite hockey athletes – but, not many people out there are training twice-per-day and in the NHL. 

So, it’s still highly relevant for 90% + of the readers here. 

I also think it’s important to note that although it was statistically reported that there was a post-exercise strength increase taking antioxidant supplementation, an inhibition of strength gain was observed in another. 

That should be noted here, as you wouldn’t find it unless you dug in deep into the different studies.

So, What Should Hockey Players Be Doing?

Here’s the problem…

Most everybody in our industry views inflammation as “bad”, so they try to get rid of it at all costs. 

But, I want you to view inflammation like a campfire. 

If you and I went camping together, a fire would be great for us to set up because it would keep us warm, we could cook some food, and it would give us the necessary light we need to set up shop.

But, a big problem occurs when that campfire turns into a forest fire. At that point, we burn down trees, destroy our campsite, and probably end up going to jail.

Small campfire = GREAT.

Large forest fire = REALLY bad.

To put this in another light more relevant to the findings of this study:

A little bit of inflammation = Totally normal response and function in the body.

Chronically elevated inflammation = Highly damaging to our body and decreases the rate of our recovery from exercise.

Exercise is our “campfire” because you need to create inflammation/damage within the muscles in order to send the signal to the body that they are stressed, and therefore need to come back stronger than before (i.e. you adapt and make progress).

You don’t want to put out your campfire – it’s what’s actually giving you results in the gym and on the ice. 

In fact, we have already seen on multiple occasions within the data that antioxidants suppress both aerobic and anaerobic adaptations, as well as even reduce performance.

Inflammation itself is a signal for muscle gain (more here), so using antioxidants to suppress soreness from exercise seems very counterproductive, doesn’t it?

You’re in the gym to make progress, and that’s what’s making you sore. 

But if you’re taking high doses of antioxidants… you’re negating the very reason you worked out in the first place. 

I mean, nobody wants to make slower progress, do they? 

Of course not – and yet it seems as though if somebody did want to give themselves a self-induced plateau in gains that taking high doses of antioxidants would be a great way to help that happen.

Beyond this, we also have research to suggest that if you stop the inflammation from carrying out its processes (by using high dose antioxidants) that you will also stop the muscle from being able to handle future stressors. 

This process is called mitohormesis, and it is in place to make you a better version of yourself that is capable of resisting future stressors – but if you stop that process then I would chalk that up as a major downfall of using high doses of antioxidants.

It’s not just antioxidants that disrupt the natural inflammatory processes either – both ice baths and NSAIDs have been associated with lowering the amount of progress you can make from a workout as well.

How Should Hockey Players Use Antioxidants? If at All?

Antioxidants aren’t a bad thing, I’m not trying to paint that picture at all. 

But what I am trying to point out to you with a mountain of rock-solid scientific evidence is that high doses of antioxidants have very little return on investment for you in both the short and long-term.

They don’t improve hockey performance, and they decrease the adaptations you’re going to receive from the hard work you’re putting in the gym.

Now some might say here:

“Well hold on Dan, what if I just want health benefits? Are they beneficial then?”

Still no, for two main reasons:

1.    If you want health benefits you should be in the gym and not looking for magic pills. Activity is the best “supplement” you will ever take.

2.    More is never better – an adequate number of antioxidants can be highly beneficial, but there is a “bell curve” effect for everything. Not enough won’t get you much, an adequate dose will be the most beneficial, and too much will start creating a negative effect.

The only scenario in which I can justify high dose antioxidants is for the professional athlete who doesn’t have the luxury of time in order to recover from exercise. 

For example, an NHL player in a Stanley Cup playoff series who needs to play a game tomorrow doesn’t care about maximizing adaptations – he needs to relieve himself of all muscle soreness so he can express his skills out on the ice.

For this reason, mitigating excessive inflammation makes temporary sense, even if it comes at the expense of long-term adaptive response.

Final Thoughts and Recommendations

What I want you to leave here with today is the idea that the subsequent inflammatory response after training is a part of the natural and normal recovery process from your hockey training. 

The use of antioxidants means that you’re going to blunt this pathway to some degree, and although this may result in some short-term avoidance of DOMS – it will result in long-term reduction in adaptations (we will have no campfire at all!).

It would be great if future research broke down all of the different types of antioxidants to see which ones had different effects as well as being more specific with population types (age, current health condition, athletic status, etc.) to start answering some more questions.

For now, hockey players should simply consume 4-6 servings of fruits and vegetables per day since foods do not seem to have near the same effect on blunting the inflammatory pathway as concentrated supplements do.   

If you liked this article and you want more content to make sure you’re optimizing every last bit of your hockey performance, make sure you check out the Hockey Skills Accelerator because we have built it to include absolutely everything you need from a REAL scientific perspective to become a better hockey player. 

Written by
Dan Garner
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