There’s always been controversy over whether athletes need to supplement more micronutrients than the average Joe. One camp argues that since athletes are pushing their metabolism and body functions to higher levels, more vitamins and minerals are needed to sustain performance. On the flipside, however, others argue that a well-balanced diet provides more than enough micronutrients to sustain performance.
In the athletic world, the bodybuilding population is a unique and interesting cohort to study. Generally speaking, bodybuilders are either overeating or dieting (depending on the time of year) and quite often limit the selection of foods to a short list of choices. Bodybuilders are also very concerned with preserving an anabolic environment, and therefore tend to consume a diet more focused on a beneficial ratio of macronutrients (i.e., protein, carbs and fats) over micronutrients.
For more than a decade, supplement researchers have been interested in the ergogenic effects of dietary micronutrients. The reason is that individuals can become easily deficient in certain vitamins and minerals with imbalances in diet, especially when combined with heavy training. A recent review article published in the Journal of Sports Sciences highlights the mechanisms behind the potential performance benefits and gives the recent evidence for and against supplementing vitamins C, D and E.
Why Vitamin D?
In the most basic sense, vitamin D is essential for calcium metabolism and absorption in the body. It also regulates numerous genes in the body and plays significant roles in regulating inflammation and immunity. In skeletal muscle, vitamin D is important for calcium regulation, protein synthesis and muscle growth. According to current studies many athletes are vitamin-D deficient, which may impair muscle function and performance. However, some warn that the risk of vitamin-D toxicity is too high to prescribe chronic supplementation for ergogenic purposes.
Why Vitamins C and E?
Vitamins C and E work as powerful antioxidants in the body, buffering free radicals and oxidative stress to minimize cellular damage. Exercise promotes increased free radical production, which can alter the function of many cells important for exercise performance. For example, vitamin C’s antioxidant effects can augment the production of nitric oxide (a vasodilator) during exercise — this promotes increased blood flow, nutrient delivery and metabolite removal. Several studies that support antioxidant supplementation indicate that excessive free radical production during exercise may lead to muscle cell damage and fatigue. However, the most intriguing support for antioxidant supplementation comes from data illustrating that athletes lacking balanced diets have generally low antioxidant intake.
The Doc’s Take
Based on the current review, the data seem to be inconclusive as to whether super-supplementation of vitamins C, D and E increase performance in those who aren’t micronutrient deficient. However, the data suggest that most athletes tend to be deficient in some or all of these micronutrients and therefore can benefit from supplementation.
Taken together the best way to ensure adequate micronutrient levels in the body is to consume a well-balanced diet and a daily multivitamin or vitamin pack designed for athletes. You should always be sure to get the recommended daily allowance for calcium and if you feel you may be deficient in vitamin D, see your family doctor to be tested.
Powers S, Nelson WB, Larson-Meyer E. Antioxidant and Vitamin D supplements for athletes: Sense or nonsense? J Sports Sci. 2011 Aug 11.