Athletes lead the way in health and nutrition, acutely aware of the connection between our food, our minds, and our bodies. At a time when we are looking more and more to food as a means of gaining and maintaining health, we find ourselves returning to our roots. Our ancestors were great athletes who performed without modern food technology. No chemically produced gel prevented a bonk halfway through a hunt or a race. They were fueled by real food. One of those foods, olive oil, hasn’t changed in thousands of years and it remains as beneficial to today’s athlete as ever.

It’s no coincidence that winning athletes of the first Olympic games were crowned with olive wreaths. Olive oil and the athlete share a rich and celebrated history. Used to anoint athletes’ bodies before exercise and the games, olive oil was also the prize of victory.  Olive oil was revered by the ancients who understood the depth of its value, and today’s athletes have rediscovered that wisdom and are putting it to practice.

At its most basic, olive oil provides energy, something athletes never want to be without. Compared to the sedentary who should consume no more than 15% of their calories from fat, athletes need anywhere from 20%-30%. This is true for both endurance and high intensity sports. Fat is the body’s main fuel during low intensity lengthy endeavors like triathlons and marathons, but it’s just as necessary for high intensity sports too. Carbohydrates may be the central fuel for high intensity activities but without fat, carbohydrate energy cannot be released.

Fats are essential to the athlete, but not just any fat will do. Fats may be saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fat. Health conscious as they are, athletes know trans fats serve no good purpose and should be avoided. As for saturated and unsaturated, some researchers believe unsaturated fats are the best choice. Saturated fats come from animals and can contribute to high cholesterol levels. Athletes should monitor their intake of animal fats which can also be damaging to the skeletal and heart muscles. Because it is monounsaturated, olive oil does not have these effects. In fact, olive oil helps lower cholesterol levels and contributes to heart health and bone building. Olive oil is made up of mostly monounsaturated fatty acids in the form of oleic acid, a few saturated fats, and some polyunsaturated fats such as linoleic acid.

Fats like to hang out in the stomach, taking their time digesting. For this reason, timing is everything for the athlete. Any athlete who has been struck by stomach cramps, minor or downright debilitating, knows the necessity of fast and easy digestion, not a hallmark of fats. Yet, among fats, olive oil is highly digestible. Research shows that it has a high absorption capacity in the intestine, aiding digestion by reducing gastric fluids in the body, keeping things running smoothly, and reducing constipation. The result is a lasting feeling of fullness, a definite perk for any athlete.

Olive oil plays an essential role in exercise recovery which is critical to athletic performance because only at rest do the effects of training kick in. During recovery the athlete’s muscles repair, rebuild, and strengthen in response to the breakdown of muscle tissue, the depletion of energy stores, and fluid loss induced by exercise. Its omega-3 rich monounsaturated fats produce anti-inflammatory substances that reduce inflammation alongside its powerhouse of polyphenols which also play a role in preventing bone loss.  A 2005 study found that olive oil contains oleocanthal, yet another anti-inflammatory component that has anti inflammatory effects similar to ibuprofen, the pain reliever widely used by athletes. Four teaspoons of olive oil equal 10% of the dosage of ibuprofen, which may not appear impressive, but eaten daily, study participants reported reduced muscle pain and stiffness. Results increased when olive oil was taken along with fish oil.

Muscles take a beating during athletic training and events. Without adequate recovery, which includes repair, strengthening, and muscle building, no progress is gained. Olive oil steps it up in this role too. A 2009 study published in the journal Lipids, shows olive oil helps cells absorb cholesterol and convert it to testosterone better than other fat sources. Testosterone is critical to the body’s muscle building process as well as increasing energy levels.

Fats are also vital to the development, repair, and building of bone density which prevents and protects against fracture and injury.  Olive oil in particular has the ideal make-up for bone health due to its unique combination of oleic acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids which work together to build bone tissue. This is vital for the athlete whose body is constantly in a state of work and recovery, allowing the body to regenerate and grow stronger.

You don’t need to be an athlete to reap the benefits of olive oil, though it certainly won’t hurt. Its unique combination of fatty acids and high levels of antioxidants make up this powerhouse of cell protection that keeps us healthy, active, and disease-free. Calorie dense and smoothly flavored, extra virgin olive oil (the healthiest form) is easily added to many foods, making it ideal for the serious athlete, the weekend warrior, and even the couch potato. What better reason to ditch food technology and get back to the source!


Photo credit: Bettman/Corbis

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