Vitamin Needs of Athletes

Reviewed by Sarah Klemm, RD, CD
Vitamin Needs of Athletes

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Vitamins and minerals 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 needs, there are no official guidelines for vitamin recommendations specific to athletes at this time. For more individualized nutrition needs, meet with a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in sports nutrition to help determine your vitamin and mineral needs.

While vitamin and mineral supplements may not enhance your performance, a deficiency likely is 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, peanuts 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 whole grains

Vitamin B6

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

  • 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 missed nutrients of 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 only 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 of 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: Clams, turkey breast, fortified breakfast cereals, beef, beans, spinach and oats

Vitamin A

Well-known for its role in vision, vitamin A also may act as an antioxidant, particularly during endurance training. 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 cheese

Bone Health

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

Vitamin D

Vitamin D can be absorbed from exposure to sunlight, however, an individual’s weight, 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, seafood and eggs

Calcium

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

  • Good sources: Milk, cheese, fortified orange juice 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.

An average diet typically provides enough sodium to prevent deficiency but athletes that 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 may be appropriate if you are losing lots of fluids.

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