Contributed by Mark DeCotis
The issue of the value of vitamins and supplements for athletes can be confounding and confusing, to say the least.
John Cuomo, Ph.D., the executive director of Research and Development at USANA Health Sciences addresses the most common questions on the subject.
Cuomo holds a bachelor¹s degree in chemistry from the University of Vermont, a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Penn State, and he also completed a post-doctoral fellowship in bio-organic chemistry at the University of Oregon. He brings more than 25 years of expertise to his work at USANA and holds two patents for Olivol® along with over 20 other U.S. and international patents.
Which vitamins are essential for athletes and why?
A: All vitamins and minerals play specific roles in the body to maintain an athlete’s well-being, energy and metabolism. Since many vitamins and minerals work together in the body, if an athlete is low on one, it affects how the body functions as a whole. Athletes require excellent nutrition in order to meet the challenges they face. For example, intense training increases oxidative stress and weakens the immune system. Antioxidants such as betacarotene, vitamin E, vitamin C, CoQ10 and several others may be particularly important.
Vitamin D also plays a very important role in immune and muscle function. So, for athletes, I recommend a high-quality multivitamin/mineral supplement with advanced doses of these nutrients. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies do not develop overnight, so most athletes are unaware they are deficient in certain nutrients until they begin taking supplements and/or eat healthier. These changes allow them to begin to feel and perform better. This phenomenon can leave the athlete wondering how they ever got by in the deficient state they had become accustomed to.
In what dosages should athletes ingest vitamins?
A: Athletes typically need a higher intake of vitamins and minerals similar to their increased caloric needs. One assumption is that athletes consume additional calories to match their higher energy expenditure and these additional calories will contain enough vitamins to match increased needs. This is likely incorrect, as most athletes do not consume enough nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables to meet their increased calorie needs. A balanced approach of a varied diet and a daily high-quality multivitamin regimen is recommended over supplementing with individual vitamins and minerals. Blood tests and other tests can help with creating a more specific supplementation regimen for an athlete.
I believe most athletes should be getting between 10,000 and 15,000 IU vitamin A (from betacarotene), 500 to 1,500 mg vitamin C, 400 IU vitamin E, advanced doses of the B vitamins (including 20-30 mg of vitamin B1, B2, and B6), about 30 mg niacinamide, 150-200 mcg B12 and 800-1,000 mcg folic acid every day. In addition, research now suggests that daily doses of 2,000 to 5,000 IU of vitamin D are required for optimal immune, bone, and muscle health.
And don’t forget the minerals, particularly calcium (1,000-1,200 mg per day from foods and supplements), and about 400 mg or more magnesium, as well as iodine (250-300 mcg), zinc (15–20 mg), copper (1-2 mg), manganese (4-5 mg), boron (4 mg), and the trace minerals selenium (150-200 mcg), chromium (250-300 mcg), molybdenum (50 mcg) and vanadium (30-40 mcg).
Which vitamins if any have no value to athletes?
A: All vitamins and minerals potentially have value to athletes. The extent of the benefit of each depends on how much the athlete is getting from his or her diet and supplement regimen and how much the vitamins and minerals are being used by the athlete. So, for example, an athlete who trains outdoors would likely have different vitamin D needs than an athlete who trains indoors.
Where do you stand on the argument that all supplements have no value and that a balanced diet will achieve the same results?
A: There’s a difference between what we think athletes should be eating and what they are actually eating. And there’s a difference between the minimal nutrition that our bodies need to function and the optimal nutrition that our bodies require to perform at its best.
We know that most athletes, just like everyone else, do not always eat the healthiest diets. In general, very few athletes get nine servings or more per day of fruits and vegetables. Very few eat enough whole grains and most eat too much refined foods. Consuming enough nutrients at the right times is very important to athletes. An athlete would have to eat a lot of extra nutrient-dense foods to meet his or her nutritional needs and shakes, bars, and other supplements offer a convenient way to fill in those nutritional gaps.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) describes a nutrient intake level that meets minimal needs, but not necessarily what is optimal. Studies such as the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) have demonstrated that nearly no one in the U.S., athletes included, get even the RDA of most vitamins. Imagine what that means for an athlete who is working their bodies much harder than the rest of us. Even if an athlete ate an optimal diet — which they all should try to do — it would still be very hard for them to obtain optimal levels of vitamins C, D, E, many B vitamins, or the minerals they need for health and performance. So I recommend that athletes take a high-quality supplement.
Are specific vitamins specific to specific sports, such as running, swimming, cycling, etc.?
A: Athletes involved in extreme endurance sports experience a higher level of oxidative stress and would likely benefit more from antioxidants, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium. Iron depletion and deficiency are common in female athletes and more so in those involved in weight-dependent and aesthetic sports. Vegetarian athletes also are at increased risk for poor iron status.
Athletes in weight-dependent sports may restrict their calorie intake, making it harder to get adequate vitamins and minerals from a limited amount of food. Indoor sport athletes, or those with darker skin, are at increased risk of vitamin D deficiency. Young, growing athletes, aging athletes, or athletes with a history of stress fractures may benefit from calcium and vitamin D even more than other athletes. Many athletes take glucosamine for joint health and pain, and there is convincing data to support this practice.
What is the risk posed to athletes who are not eating a balanced diet or not taking worthwhile supplements (legal vitamins)?
A: During competitive years, the athlete who is not eating and supplementing right has an increased risk of getting sick, becoming injured and not adapting to their training as quickly. Athletes place high demands on their bodies, so the hope is that in keeping up with these demands through proper eating and supplementation habits, they can maintain a high level of performance over their lifespan.
Cumulative damage to the body from years of hard training likely catches up faster to the athletes with poor nutritional habits. Benefits of a good supplementation and nutritional program for athletes will likely be evident years after their competitive days are over. Those who have received optimal nutrients, in the long term, will have much lower risks of developing chronic degenerative diseases that are endemic to aging adults.