Essential Vitamins for Athletic Men and Women
By Dwayne N. Jackson, PhD
Vitamins are essential micronutrients found in the foods we consume daily. Although vitamins don’t directly provide energy, many promote energy production by optimizing cellular function and nutrient absorption. They also support growth and development of various tissues in the body, including bones and muscle, and serve as catalysts for many important biochemical pathways and reactions. During heavy training, when metabolic rate goes up, vitamin requirements increase. Based on this, intense training coupled with long-term strict dieting can mean chronic vitamin deficiencies for many athletes. In addition, athletes tend to have higher levels of lean mass and elevated metabolism, which equates to greater vitamin needs.
The easiest way to meet your daily vitamin needs is to consume a diet abundant in a variety of fruits and vegetables. However, since many athletes follow low-fat diets, restrict calories, and/or limit their intake of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, vitamin supplementation is suggested in this cohort. In the following article, we have outlined the most vital vitamins needed to support energy production, muscular growth, and physical performance in men and women.
Types of Vitamins
Vitamins are categorized based on their solubility in the body. Water-soluble vitamins are not stored in the body; instead, they dissolve in body water and are absorbed and used by cells. The water-soluble vitamins are eliminated each day by the kidneys during urination and some water-soluble vitamins (like vitamin C) are also lost during heavy sweating. Because of their short existence in the body, we need a continuous and adequate supply of water-soluble vitamins to keep from becoming vitamin deficient. In contrast, fat-soluble vitamins are stored in our fat and liver and are eliminated slowly from the body.
ESSENTIAL WATER SOLUBLE VITAMINS FOR ATHLETES
B-Complex Vitamins: Thiamine (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Niacin (B3), Pantothenic Acid (B5), Pyridoxine (B6), Biotin (B7), Folic acid (Folate; B9), and cobalamin (B12)
The B-vitamins are most commonly found in whole grains, dark green vegetables, nuts, and many animal and dairy products. In the realm of exercise performance, optimal intake of B-complex vitamins is necessary for maximizing energy production and training adaptations in exercised muscle. Where vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, and B7 are intimately involved in converting proteins and carbohydrates into energy, vitamin B12 and folic acid are required for red blood cell production, protein synthesis and tissue/cellular repair.
Although studies have shown that heavy training promotes increased needs for B-complex vitamins in men and women, female athletes and vegetarians are most susceptible to deficiencies in vitamins B2, B6, folic acid, and B12. Studies show that male and female athletes who are chronically deficient in B-complex vitamins (like B12 and/or folic acid) have deficits in exercise performance, which are corrected with B-complex vitamin supplementation. To assure that your B-complex vitamins are always topped off, we recommend taking a multivitamin, vitamin pack, or B-complex vitamin designed for athletes. Look for athlete specific products that include approximately 100 mg of B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, at least 100 mcg of B12 (in the form of cyanocobalamin), 400 mcg of folic acid, and 300 of mcg biotin and take as directed.
Vitamin C is found in abundance in citrus fruits, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, and sweet peppers (green and red). It aids in wound healing, strengthens blood vessel walls, and plays a vital role in iron absorption, as well as bone and tooth development. Vitamin C is one of the most researched antioxidants and, as such, it serves to buffer free radicals produced during exercise to promote enhanced muscle recovery. Studies illustrate that vitamin C’s antioxidant effects also serve to bolster nitric oxide bioavailability, which promotes improved blood flow during and after exercise, especially in older athletes. As well, vitamin C is a proven immune system support agent, keeping you healthy during periods of intense training and dietary restrictions. This water-soluble vitamin also helps to maintain and repair tendons, keeping you protected from musculoskeletal injury. The RDA for vitamin C is about 60 mg/day in men and women, but research suggests that much higher doses are needed for beneficial effects in athletes. It must be stressed that mega-dosing vitamin C (1 gram or more per day) has been recently shown to diminish training effects. Thus, the optimal suggested dosing is 250-500 mg of vitamin C per day.
ESSENTIAL FAT-SOLUBLE VITAMINS FOR ATHLETES
Because they are stored in fat, fat-soluble vitamins can accumulate over time. Thus, vitamin deficiencies in this category tend to be rare. Nevertheless, if you are an athlete, the following fat-soluble vitamin recommendations should be considered.
The body uses vitamin A to produce retinol, the bioavailable form of vitamin A. It is found naturally in liver, fish, and dairy products. Alternatively, the body can convert beta-carotene (provitamin A) to retinol. Colorful fruits and vegetables (like carrots, squash, apricots, cantaloupe) contain naturally high amounts of beta-carotene.
Retinol can be processed into retinal, which is fundamentally important for vision. As well, this vitamin can be metabolized to form retinoic acid, which is a hormonal growth factor. Vitamin A is also important for reproduction, cellular growth and division, and bone and tooth growth. Vitamin A not only regulates growth of tissues but can also act as a powerful antioxidant, which aids muscle recovery by buffering free radicals that build up from intense exercise.
There are more cases of excess vitamin A than deficiency. Thus, daily needs are generally met through diet and/or multivitamin supplementation. If you eat a lot of vitamin A rich foods, then make sure to use beta-carotene as your source of supplemental vitamin A. Research shows that beta-carotene only forms active vitamin A in times of need, thus decreasing the chances of an over abundance of vitamin A accumulating in the body. We recommend taking up to 10,000 iu of beta-carotene per day.
The body can make vitamin D when the skin is exposed to sunlight (by converting cholesterol to vitamin D); however, this mechanism of vitamin D “intake” depends greatly on the season or your sun bathing habits. Food sources of vitamin D include fortified milk products, fatty fish (salmon, mackerel), and cod liver oil. The most bioavailable form of supplemental vitamin D is vitamin D3, as it is much better absorbed than its “little brother” vitamin D2.
Vitamin D increases the absorption of calcium in the body, keeping bones strong. There is also substantial evidence showing that vitamin D helps with muscle function through its influence on muscle calcium levels. Studies show that vitamin D helps maintain healthy testosterone levels in males and supports immune function and fat loss. Many studies report that vitamin D deficiency is commonplace in our society, especially among male and female athletes. The daily upper limit of vitamin D intake in adults is generally reported as 2000 iu, however studies have shown that up to 10,000 iu per day is well tolerated and beneficial. To keep vitamin D levels topped off we recommend taking 2000-4000 iu of active vitamin D3 per day.
Found in wheat germ, nuts (almonds and hazel nuts), green leafy vegetables (like spinach), whole grain products, and sunflower seeds, vitamin E is a well-known and potent antioxidant. It has been shown to promote healthy skin and hair, support cardiovascular health, boost the immune system, and prevent cataracts. Its ability to buffer free radicals, produced during heavy exercise, also protects cells from damage and supports muscle recovery. The beneficial effects of vitamin E during exercise are especially noted in older males and females; however, research has shown that younger populations also need adequate dietary vitamin E for optimum performance.
One way vitamin E protects muscle cells from free radicals is through its absorption into the cell membrane. High vitamin E levels in skeletal muscle cell membranes stop free radicals from attacking and penetrating muscle cells, enabling faster and more complete recovery after training. Natural vitamin E (d-alpha-tocopherols), are more bioavailable than the synthetically derived vitamin E (dl-alpha-tocopherols). Like vitamin C, having too much or too little vitamin E can have a negatively impact exercise adaptations. As such, we suggest taking 400 iu of vitamin E with breakfast each morning.
Wondering whether to use vitamin supplements or not? Answer the following 5 questions to see if you are a candidate for vitamin supplementation.
Do you follow a strict and limited diet with little to no fruit and very little variety, especially during the competitive season?
Do you train at least 4 days a week at high intensity?
Do you alter your diet to include more fruits and vegetables as your conditioning improves?
When you train, do you sweat heavy?
Are you more muscular than average?
If you answered “YES” to one or more of the above, then you are a candidate for vitamin supplementation.