Vitamin and Mineral Needs of Athletes

Contributors: Jill Kohn, MS, RDN, LDN
Vitamin Needs of Athletes

sportpoint/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Vitamins and minerals, also known as micronutrients, are crucial for a variety of activities in the body such as turning food into energy and keeping bones healthy. They also may affect how well the body performs. Although some research suggests high activity levels in athletes may increase their vitamin and mineral needs, there are no official guidelines for micronutrient recommendations specific to athletes at this time, so individualized guidance is needed. 

While vitamin and mineral supplements may not enhance your performance, a deficiency is likely to damage it. Here's a review of some important nutrients and their food sources to help keep you at the top of your game:

Energy Production

A variety of vitamins are needed in metabolism. These vitamins help to break down food from bigger nutrients, such as carbohydrates and fatty acids, into smaller units that the body can use to turn food into fuel.

Thiamin

Thiamin is important to several metabolic pathways, such as the breakdown of carbohydrates and branched-chain amino acids.

  • Good sources: Whole or fortified grain products, pork and black beans

Niacin

Having too little or too much niacin can result in unpleasant and even dangerous side effects such as diarrhea, dementia, rashes and liver damage. Choose food sources before supplements.

  • Good sources: Poultry, peanuts, fish, brown rice and enriched grains

Vitamin B6

Involved in nearly 100 metabolic pathways, vitamin B6 is essential to the breakdown of foods.

  • Good sources: Poultry, pistachios, chickpeas, lentils, pork, bananas and tuna

Performance Enhancement

The following vitamins and minerals often are taken for performance enhancement or to make up for missing nutrients on a restricted diet. Try focusing on food sources first, as high doses of some supplements may result in side effects such as constipation, bone damage and kidney stones.

Vitamin B12

B12 is found naturally in animal products, putting vegan and vegetarian athletes at risk for a deficiency. Fortified foods including breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast and plant-based meat alternatives provide vitamin B12. Be sure to read the food label as not all these foods are fortified. Taking a B12 supplement may also be needed but check with a health care provider first.

  • Good sources: Seafood, meats, milk and cheese, eggs and fortified breakfast cereals

Iron

Iron is essential for oxygen transportation, traveling in blood throughout the body. Not having enough iron in the body may cause fatigue and impact physical performance. Exercise may cause some iron losses or decreased absorption.

  • Good Sources: Oysters, turkey breast, fortified breakfast cereals, beef, beans and spinach

Vitamin A

Well-known for its role in vision, vitamin A also may act as an antioxidant. Excess amounts from supplements can have toxic effects, though, so check with a health care provider before taking.

  • Good Sources: Sweet potato, carrot, pumpkin, collard greens, spinach and some types of cheese

Bone Health

Running, jumping and acrobatics – intense physical activity puts stress on bones and joints. Some vitamins and minerals promote bone health, including vitamin D and calcium.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D can be absorbed from exposure to sunlight, however, the season, time of day, cloud coverage, as well as an individual’s geographic location and skin color all can affect how well vitamin D is absorbed from ultraviolet light.

  • Good sources: Fortified milk and soymilk, cod-liver oil, fatty fish and mushrooms exposed to UV light

Calcium

In addition to bone health, calcium is important for nerve function and the release of hormones.

  • Good sources: Milk, cheese, fortified 100% fruit juices and soymilk, and collard greens

A Note on Salt

Sodium and chloride are two essential minerals that often are found together as table salt. They also make a frequent appearance in sports drinks.

Athletes who lose four liters or more of sweat in a day (about two pounds) are at increased risk for sodium depletion. Weighing yourself before and after training sessions and events can help determine how much fluid you may be losing but it’s preferable to stay hydrated throughout your activity. A sports drink that contains sodium and carbohydrate is recommended if you are losing lots of fluids or physically active for more than 2 hours, especially in the heat.

For personalized nutrition advice, meet with a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in sports nutrition to help determine your individual vitamin and mineral needs.

Find Nutrition Experts

Need serious help making a plan? The nutrition experts in our professional membership are ready to help you create the change to improve your life.

Find a Nutrition Expert