As an athlete, you’re used to hearing about carbohydrates that fuel your muscles and amino acids and proteins that help to build muscle tissue. But what’s your vitamin/mineral IQ?
In this article, you’ll learn the importance of vitamins and minerals, both for health and for athletic performance. We’ll also explore whether athletes need more of these nutrients, and discuss practical strategies to help you get the essential vitamins and minerals that you need every day.
Tackling the terminology
Vitamins are biochemicals that you need in small amounts in order to be healthy and perform at your best athletically. You may consume a pound or more of carbs in a single day to keep up with your training and competition needs, along with gram quantities of protein, but your want for vitamins is measured in the milligrams or even micrograms. That’s why nutritionists refer to fats, carbohydrates, and protein as macronutrients, and refer to vitamins as micronutrients. Vitamins are called essential because your body can’t make them, and you need them to be healthy. Ideally, you should get them from foods, but you can take dietary supplements if you don’t get adequate amounts from foods.
Vitamins are classified based on their solubility:
Fat-soluble vitamins are vitamins A, D, E, and K. Chemically speaking, they don’t dissolve or mix well in water, but they are soluble in fats. The fat-soluble vitamins are stored and can be retained for long periods in the body
Water-soluble vitamins include vitamin C and the complex of eight B vitamins: thiamin, riboflavin, B6, niacin, folic acid, B12, biotin, and pantothenic acid. These nutrients dissolve or mix easily in water. Being water-soluble, they also tend to be excreted more readily
Minerals are substances found naturally in the earth’s crust, and some of them, like vitamins, are essential to your health and can only be obtained from what you eat and drink.
The essential minerals have 2 subclasses:
Major minerals you need in 100 mg amounts or more. Sodium, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium are all examples of major minerals
Trace minerals are needed in smaller amounts, usually less than 20 mg daily. Trace minerals include iron, zinc, copper, selenium, and chromium
Critical for optimal function
Contrary to popular belief, vitamins and minerals don’t give you energy, but they do play key roles in the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats which are your primary muscle fuels during exercise. They’re also involved in the repair and building of muscle protein in response to training. Metabolic processes like energy metabolism and protein synthesis are driven by biochemical regulators in the body known as metabolic enzymes. These enzymes require coenzymes or cofactors in order to function properly. Many of the B vitamins serve as cofactors for metabolic enzymes. If the B vitamins are in adequate supply in your diet, then your metabolic enzymes can do their respective jobs. But if a particular micronutrient is in short supply, its enzyme is like a motor with fouled spark plugs; it can’t function at full capacity, and you can’t operate at your best.
If you examine the vitamin and mineral tables below, you’ll see that micronutrients are involved in all kinds of biochemical reactions that take place in your body every minute of every day. Micronutrients support growth and development, muscle contraction, hydration balance, nerve function, energy metabolism, tissue repair, bone metabolism, the transport of oxygen throughout your body, and immune function.
Striking a balance
Because vitamins and minerals perform such vital functions, you might be tempted to think that if getting some of these micronutrients is good, consuming more is even better: Think again. The consumption of calories is a useful analogy. If you’re an athlete that chronically under-consumes calories, your health and athletic performance will eventually suffer. Conversely, if you consume too many calories on a regular basis, you’ll eventually get fat, and your ability to train and compete will decline. But if you consistently consume the calories your body needs, you’ve struck that energy balance that allows you to train and compete at your best.
Now apply that same thinking to the essential vitamins and minerals. If your intake is chronically too low, you won’t function very well metabolically or athletically. Conversely, if you consume too much of these micronutrients, you can develop toxicity symptoms that can impair athletic performance, and even worse, put your health at risk. But if you consistently consume vitamins and minerals in amounts that you need, you have that solid micronutrient foundation that allows you to be healthy, to train hard, and to compete at your best.
Do athletes need more?
It’s reasonable to think that because you’re an athlete burning hundreds of extra calories every day and shedding pounds of weight through sweating, you may need comparatively more of the micronutrients than the average person. Researchers have investigated that very question in regard to several different micronutrients. Take the B vitamins as an example: Physical activity definitely burns calories, and you’d think that with a higher level of metabolic activity, you’d have a higher need for the B vitamins, which serve as cofactors in energy metabolism. As it turns out, the evidence does suggest a slightly greater need for athletes. The catch is that most athletes who burn more calories also tend to eat more food, and that seems to cover the bases in terms of the need for extra Bs. So if you are meeting your caloric needs, chances are you are meeting your need for B vitamins.
Another area where you’d think extra micronutrients would be called for is in protecting against the damaging effects of free radicals. During metabolism, highly reactive biochemical compounds known as free radicals are formed. These destructive free radicals attack structures within cells, contributing to cellular damage. In comparison to those who don’t exercise, athletes burning thousands of calories every day are generating greater amounts of these destructive compounds. Nutrients like vitamins C and E, and the plant form of vitamin A known as beta carotene, are believed to help protect against free radicals. It seems logical, then, that athletes should take supplements of the antioxidant nutrients, right? Not so fast. Scientists have found that we have built-in antioxidant defense systems in our bodies designed to neutralize free radicals, and in trained athletes, this protective antioxidant defense system is significantly more developed than in non-athletes. So, again, there doesn’t appear to be a very strong case for an increased need for the antioxidant micronutrients.
The daily requirements set for vitamins and minerals include some built-in leeway. This buffer zone recognizes that micronutrient needs vary from one individual to the next, and that the daily requirements are determined so as to meet the needs of virtually all healthy individuals. So while your need for certain nutrients may be a bit higher here and there because you are an athlete, current research indicates that you can follow the daily requirements established for all healthy adults.
Inadequate intakes of vitamins and minerals can impair both your health and your athletic performance; but if your nutrient intake is already adequate, supplementing with extra vitamins and minerals won’t make you stronger, faster, quicker, more skilled, or better by any other performance measure.
Nutrients deserving extra attention
Taking larger amounts of vitamins and minerals than you need won’t confer a performance benefit; but there are a few micronutrients that warrant a bit of extra attention, either because they commonly come up short in the diets of certain groups of athletes, or because consuming them during exercise can make a performance difference.
Calcium and vitamin D
Calcium and vitamin D work hand in hand when it comes to supporting bone development. Both tend to be in short supply in athletes’ and nonathletes’ diets alike, particularly in the diets of females. As an athlete, training and competing puts a stressor on your bones. You don’t feel it, but your bones are constantly undergoing a remodeling process, where bone mineral is being dissolved away and then replaced. By having enough calcium in your diet, you help to ensure that you have enough calcium available to fully support the bone remodeling process. And having enough vitamin D helps to promote the absorption of calcium from your gut.
If you’re not getting enough calcium and vitamin D, you increase your risk of exercise-related stress fractures. Female athletes are particularly at risk for stress fractures, since many often limit their calorie intake in order to achieve a lower level of body fat. While the reduced body fat may help in the short-term with athletic performance, the inadequate calories coupled with too little calcium and vitamin D is devastating to your bones. The solution is to consume enough calories every day, and to make sure that you’re also meeting your needs for calcium and vitamin D.
Recently, there has been a call to increase daily vitamin D recommendations. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently upped its recommendations for teenagers (and children) to 400 IU vitamin D daily. And researchers are pushing for higher daily recommendations for adults, as well.
Some good vitamin D sources include vitamin D-fortified milk (about 100 IU vitamin D per cup), salmon (about 360 IU per 3.5 oz serving), and fortified ready-to-eat cereals (about 40 IU per cup).
Good calcium sources include milk (about 300 mg per cup), cottage cheese (about 150 mg per cup), yogurt (about 300 mg per cup), cheddar cheese (about 200 mg per oz), and leafy greens (about 200 mg per cup cooked), and calcium-fortified orange juice (about 300 mg per cup).
If you are unable to consume adequate calcium and vitamin D from foods, take a dietary supplement that contains both of them.
If your diet is low in iron, your athletic performance may be suffering, because iron is a component of a protein found in red blood cells called hemoglobin. Hemoglobin grabs hold of the oxygen that you breathe in through your lungs, and holds on to it as red blood cells transport the oxygen to your muscles and other tissues during exercise. Hemoglobin also transports carbon dioxide back to the lungs, where you exhale it. Too little iron in the diet can result in iron-deficiency anemia, as well as impaired oxygen and carbon dioxide transport. This, in turn, will impair your ability to train and compete.
There are different schools of thought on the prevalence of iron-deficiency anemia. Some reports indicate that it occurs in about 5% of both athletes and non-athletes. Other reports contend that it occurs in as many as a third to even half of athletes, especially among female athletes, and among both male and female endurance athletes. Women are particularly at risk because of menstrual blood losses and the fact that they typically consume fewer calories and less iron-rich red meat. Athletes who are still growing, as well as vegetarian athletes, may also be at higher risk for iron deficiency.
Strategies for ensuring that you get adequate dietary iron include consuming lean cuts of red meat or dark-meat poultry; iron-fortified, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals; and vitamin C–rich fruits or fruit juices; grain products; and vegetables. If you’re unable to get enough iron from foods, you may need to supplement. A balanced multivitamin/mineral supplement will generally provide your daily requirement for iron. Only take a higher-dose iron supplement if your physician instructs you to do so.
Vitamin C gets the spotlight not because it will improve athletic performance, but because it may help to reduce the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections, which seem to occur more frequently in athletes following ultra-endurance events such as marathons, triathlons, and the like. The benefit is not guaranteed. In some studies, vitamin C hasn’t made a difference, but in others, 500 mg/day or so of vitamin C, a week or two prior to and after an extended endurance competition, reduced the chance of getting one of those irritating chest colds afterwards.
Sodium gets the ‘extra attention’ nomination because it is the major electrolyte in sweat, and sweating is crucial to cooling your body during exercise. Although you lose electrolytes and other minerals when you sweat, sodium is the electrolyte lost in greatest concentration. If you’re exercising for less than an hour in moderate temperature conditions, you needn’t be concerned about sodium intake during exercise itself. But if you’re out there in the heat and humidity, or exercising for much more than an hour at a time, it pays to include sodium in your hydration beverage. The easy way to get fluids and sodium is with a sports drink, such as PowerBar® Endurance sports drink. By rehydrating with both fluid and sodium, you do a better job of replacing what you’re losing when you sweat. The benefit is more effective hydration, which allows you to perform at your best and avoid the potential adverse health effects of dehydration or overhydration.
Putting it into practice
When it comes to essential vitamins and minerals, here is the take-home message:
Get what you need, but more is not better: Vitamins and minerals are important to your good health and your ability to succeed in training and during competitions. So get enough of these micronutrients, but remember that getting more than you need offers no performance benefit and could prove harmful
Food is best — eat a variety: Vitamins and minerals don’t come from just a few foods. You get the many different micronutrients you need by eating a wide variety of foods
Eat enough: Consuming enough calories is necessary to get the vitamins and minerals you need, and to utilize them properly, in the case of calcium. If you’re cutting calories, chances are that your intake of the micronutrients is being cut, as well
If you have dietary restrictions, close the micronutrient gap: A fortified cereal for breakfast in the morning can help meet your need for carbs, while also providing an extra measure of micronutrient insurance. This may be an especially good route for ensuring a sufficient intake of iron
If you need to supplement, go for balance: Stick to a well-balanced, one-a-day type multivitamin and mineral supplement. In general, steer clear of single supplements, but there may be a case in certain circumstances for getting a little extra calcium and vitamin D in supplement form. If you’re an endurance athlete, a little extra vitamin C a week or two before and after an extended endurance event may help reduce your risk of catching a chest cold
Include sodium when rehydrating: When exercising in the heat and humidity and during extended endurance exercise, make sure to consume some of your daily requirement for sodium during exercise to help with hydration.