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A continued looked a vitamins, minerals

Athletes are expected to work hard to reach their athletic goals, and it’s assumed they will stick to the training program and eat right. Nevertheless, to want a winning edge is a common theme among those involved in the pursuit of athletic success.

Readily available, inexpensive and presumably safe vitamin supplements are often the go-to weapon of choice. Popular options touted in the sports world include the B vitamins, particularly vitamins B6, folate and B12, as well as vitamins C and D.

Do hard-working athletes actually need more vitamins? And if so, how much more and of which ones? Luckily, with the exception of vitamin D, physically active teens and adults can readily meet their daily requirement for vitamins through food. Choosing foods daily from all five food groups (grains, vegetables, fruit, proteins and calcium-rich foods) and eating a varied diet (eating within the groups) gets the job done nicely.

vitaminsBesides, lots of people, including athletes, have health conditions or take medications that a vitamin supplement could affect. As always, it’s best to talk with a knowledgeable health care provider who is familiar with your personal health history before taking a supplement, even if it’s natural.

B-complex vitamins

An adequate intake of B vitamins is important to ensure optimum energy production as well as the building and repair of muscles.

For athletes, the B-complex vitamins have two major functions that are directly related to exercise. Thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine (B6), pantothenic acid and biotin are involved in the production of energy during exercise. Despite the persistent urban legend that taking certain vitamins gives a person “more energy,” they don’t.

B vitamins are necessary to help covert the energy available in food (from the breakdown of carbohydrates, proteins and fats) into energy that the body can use (high-energy compounds such as ATP). Folate and vitamin B12 are required for the production of healthy red blood cells, for the synthesis of key proteins, and in tissue repair and maintenance, including the central nervous system.

Some research suggests that the need for the B-complex vitamins is slightly increased with exercise. However, active individuals generally consume more overall calories, so this increased need is typically met. On the other hand, a severe deficiency of vitamin B12, folate or both, results in anemia and reduced endurance performance.

Most at risk are female athletes, especially those who are vegetarian or have disordered eating patterns. No active form of vitamin B12 exists naturally in plant foods, so over time a deficiency could develop in anyone who is a strict vegan. Deficiencies are rare, even in vegetarians, because the daily need is small (2.4 microns) and the body’s supply is carefully guarded.

Due to being widely distributed in the American diet, B-complex vitamin deficiencies of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, pantothenic acid and biotin are rare. Good sources of vitamin B6 include baked potatoes, bananas, chicken, tuna, salmon, spinach and 100 percent fortified cereals. Don’t over-supplement, as vitamin B6 toxicity can damage sensory nerves, leading to permanent numbness in the hands and feet as well as difficulty walking.

Vitamin B12, on the other hand, is found only in meat or foods derived from animal products, such as dairy products and eggs. Those who follow a vegan diet should include a fortified source of vitamin B12 daily, such as vitamin B12-fortified soy milk.

Dark green leafy vegetables like broccoli and spinach, citrus fruits, dried legumes (chickpeas, beans and lentils) and whole grains are naturally good sources of folate. Due to its role in preventing certain birth defects, folic acid also has been added to foods labeled as “enriched” such as breakfast cereals, breads, flours, pastas, cornmeal and white rice. 

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is needed for the growth and repair of all tissues, including cartilage, tendons, ligaments and bones. It’s also used to help heal wounds, form scar tissue and it enhances the absorption of iron. As an antioxidant, Vitamin C helps to block some of the damage caused by free radicals that are made when the body breaks down food or is exposed to tobacco smoke, pollution or radiation.

Despite the lack of evidence, vitamin C is a popular supplement used by many people because it’s thought that it helps to ward off colds and the flu. High dosages of vitamin C (greater than 2,000 milligrams a day), as commonly found in supplements, should be used with caution, as it can lead to stomach upset and diarrhea.

Recent research also indicates that athletes undertaking endurance training should avoid taking vitamin C supplements (1,000 milligrams daily was used in the study) as they may actually hamper the body’s ability to make training adaptations to exercise.

It’s easy to load up on vitamin C without the worries associated with taking a supplement as all fruits and vegetables contain some amount of vitamin C. The highest concentration of vitamin C can be found in: kiwi fruit, mango, papaya, berries, citrus fruits and juices (such as orange and grapefruit), broccoli, Brusssels sprouts, cauliflower, green and red peppers, spinach and other leafy greens, winter squash, tomatoes, and tomato juice.

Vitamin D

Known as the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D is a unique vitamin that acts or functions like a hormone. It can be made in the body when bare skin is exposed appropriately to sunlight to get ultraviolet B rays (UVB). The absorption of calcium from the digestive tract is facilitated by vitamin D, making vitamin D necessary throughout life for optimizing bone health. Vitamin D also is thought to play a role in maintaining a healthy immune system, as well as being important for optimal muscle function.

Exposure of bare skin to sunlight is our principle source of vitamin D. The time of year and time of day, geographic location and your skin type are all major factors that affect how much vitamin D your body produces when exposed to sunlight. Other factors that compromise the vitamin D status of athletes include wearing clothing while training that covers most or all of the body or training predominately indoors, or by participating in training sessions during times when sun exposure is limited.

Small amounts of vitamin D are found naturally in egg yolks, beef liver and fattier fishes, as well as in vitamin-D fortified foods like milk, orange juice, margarine and breakfast cereals. Food alone, however, cannot provide the right amount of vitamin D needed by the body. Appropriate exposure of bare skin to sunlight is required.

The Vitamin D Council’s recommendation is to get half the sun exposure it takes for your skin to turn pink. Vitamin D supplements can be taken on days when full body sun exposure is inadequate. To ensure that blood levels are within a safe and healthy range, Vitamin D blood levels should be measured at minimum once a year.


Nutritional Value is a column that focuses on athlete health and wellness. It appears regularly in Coach & Athletic Director magazine.


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