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The Power of Antioxidants:
Developing a Healthy Immune System

Bob Seebohar

It doesn’t matter whether you are in the middle of your race season, entering the off-season, or entering your base training phase.  A healthy immune system is important at all times and while certain things like decreasing stress and getting more sleep are beneficial, often times the power of certain foods are overlooked in maintaining a strong immune system.  This article will focus on these immune building foods, or antioxidants, and how to get more of them in our eating program.

The family of antioxidants has expanded greatly and includes not only the well-known vitamins C and E, beta-carotene and selenium but also includes substances such as grape skin, grape seed, lutein, tocopherols, alpha lipoic acid, phytochemicals and many others.  Because there are so many compounds that can be classified as antioxidants, it gets somewhat confusing evaluating them and knowing which ones have scientific merit to their use.

Before gaining a better understanding of antioxidants, it is important to first discuss why endurance athletes may need antioxidants.

Oxidative Stress

Oxidative stress happens throughout the day during training and non-training times.  Oxidative stress can happen due to higher intensity training, pollutants in the air, inflammation and altitude exposure.  Oxidative stress gives rise to free radicals, which are molecules that contain oxygen that have unpaired electrons. This isn’t a chemistry lesson but these unpaired electrons can lead to cell damage.  Because endurance athletes constantly train under UV rays, in pollution, and require an overall greater oxygen demand, oxidative stress is unavoidable and can sometimes be quite high.


An antioxidant is a nutrient that offers an electron-rich binding site for the damaging free radicals, giving them a preferential site to bind to and pair up with missing electrons.  This means an increased ability to “quench” oxidative stress and therefore improve health, performance and possibly recovery time.

Similar to developing nutritional deficiencies, the damaging effects of oxidative stress can take years. Antioxidants should be viewed as insurance agents against this damage. If you train heavily day in and day out, antioxidants from different foods and possibly pills/powders/drinks should be a staple in your eating program.

Antioxidants in Food

Even though it's easier to take a supplement, a healthy eating program should be the foundation of your antioxidant intake because there are more than just antioxidants contained in these foods (fiber, water, other vitamins and minerals).  Whole foods are always a better choice for acquiring all of your nutrient needs.  Choose brightly colored fruits and vegetables, grains, seeds, and nuts.  Here are a few examples:

Vitamin C rich foods

Vitamin E-rich foods

Carotenoid-rich foods
(beta carotene, lycopene, lutein)

Orange, orange juice





Sweet potatoes


Sunflower seeds


Grapefruit, grapefruit, cranberry juices




Sweet potato



Olive, sunflower, canola oils

Spinach, Kale


Wheat germ



Fortified cereals

Collard Greens




Sweet red peppers



Now, if you are thinking “I can’t eat that many fruits and vegetables to get enough of my antioxidants” then you are not alone.  There are many different choices on the shelves and if you need to turn to a supplement, I recommend choosing a formula that contains a variety of antioxidants including vitamins C & E, selenium and beta-carotene. You should also consider the following in your search for an appropriate formula: alpha lipoic acid, grape seed extract, carotenoids, lutein, lycopene, bioflavanoids, turmeric and quercetin.

Take Home Messages
Taking into consideration all of the newest research on antioxidants and endurance athletes, there are a few points to consider:

  1. Athletes typically do not eat enough fruits and vegetables to obtain adequate amounts of antioxidants.
  2. Antioxidant supplementation may not be needed in short duration, high-intensity exercise.
  3. In ultra-endurance events, oxidative stress is high and antioxidant levels are compromised.

Overall, increasing fruit and vegetable intake to a minimum of 6-9 servings per day should be your goal and will supply you with a good amount of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. However, if you are competing in longer duration events, antioxidants may become more beneficial and therefore you should pay closer attention to your overall eating and antioxidant supplementation programs.

Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSCS is the Performance Director at the Colorado Center for Altitude Training and Performance (ATP Center) in Evergreen, Colorado.  The ATP Center provides training, coaching, physiological testing and nutrition services for all ages, types and abilities of endurance athletes.

Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS has been a USA Triathlon certified coach since 1999 and is one of the first USA Triathlon Certified Level III Elite Coaches in the United States. He has worked with beginners to Olympians and currently specializes in working with advanced to elite athletes. Bob was on the Performance Coaching team for Susan Williams, 2004 Olympic Triathlon Bronze medalist, as he served as her strength coach and sport dietitian during her journey to becoming the first United States athlete to medal in Olympic Triathlon. 

He blends his extensive education with his experience as an athlete, exercise physiologist, sports dietitian and coach to 

Bob has a Bachelor's degree in Exercise and Sports Science with a concentration in Wellness Program Management, a Master's degree in Health and Exercise Science and a second Master's degree in Food Science and Human Nutrition. 

Bob is also the author of the book
Nutritional Periodization for the Endurance Athlete 

Bob can be contacted at 


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