During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 100m sprinter Usain Bolt, won 3 gold medals whilst on a diet of 100 McDonalds chicken nuggets a day… for ten days.
Although deep-fried chicken nuggets provide protein (needed for muscle recovery and growth), the human body needs a varied intake of nutrients, with a broad range of vitamins and minerals.
For athletes to maximise their chances of performing at their optimum potential, vitamin and mineral intake needs to be consistently monitored.
So, if you aren’t known as ‘the fastest man in the world’, here are some key vitamins and minerals that are essential for athletes to raise the bar.
What do vitamins do?
Without vitamins, your body wouldn’t work the way it should. Your body wouldn’t be able to grow and repair in a healthy way.
The right vitamin intake is crucial for your body to perform at its best. There are 13 essential vitamins available to humans that support body function, health and growth:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
- B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, B6, B12, and folate)
Although most people can get all the vitamins they need through their diet, many athletes choose to take vitamin supplements to support the intense demands on their body, vigorous training routines and sporting performance. It’s also important for athletes to avoid vitamin deficiencies that could lead to symptoms such as fatigue. If you want to be sure that you have healthy levels of vitamins, you can take a blood test.
6 essential vitamins and minerals for sports nutrition
With sports supplements like nutritious powders, consumable recovery aids and vitamin tablets appearing in the cupboards of non-athletes, it’s little wonder that sports nutrition is a booming market estimated at around $40 billion.
But for athletes and professional sportspeople, sports nutrition is more advanced than the odd scoop of creatine added to a protein shake.
As well as an intake of nutrient-dense foods, athletes precisely monitor their vitamin and mineral levels, to understand whether they might need more supplementation.
1. Vitamin D
Vitamin D gives you a boost. It supports bone health, muscle function and a healthy immune system.
A few studies show a direct link between vitamin D status and muscle strength and power in young athletes. There is also evidence to suggest vitamin D promotes recovery from musculoskeletal injury.
But despite its name, vitamin D is actually a hormone. We consume it and our bodies make this fat-soluble ‘vitamin’ so that we can retain calcium and phosphorus, vital to building bones.
Vitamin D can reduce inflammation and helps to control infections in the body. Athletes need this vitamin both to recover from injury and prevent illness.
According to one study, 1 in 6 people are vitamin D deficient in the UK. In the winter months when sunlight is scarce, many people have lower vitamin D levels.
2. B Vitamins
The B vitamins are super important to athletes because they support a range of very important functions.
Thiamin and riboflavin help the body break down and release energy from food, whereas B12 and folate help to make healthy red blood cells.
B12 and folate are key to making red blood cells, developing nerve cells and maintaining body tissue, so it’s important for athletes to be on top of this to help with performance development.
As a whole, the B vitamins work to keep the nervous system healthy. Athletes need their nervous system to be in tip-top condition during the stress and demands of their sport.
3. Vitamin C
Oranges might come to mind when we first think of vitamin C but it’s not just citrus fruits that contain vitamin C. It’s found naturally in fresh fruit and vegetables such as brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli and berries.
Perhaps most well known for supporting your immune system, vitamin C has a wider functionality helping you to recover from the common cold.
As an antioxidant, vitamin C has the functionality to slow down processes that cause cell damage, which is important for athletes who may be recovering from injury.
Iron is an essential mineral that aids energy pathways in the body.
Iron helps the transfer of energy around the body as a key component of haemoglobin, a protein that moves oxygen from the lungs to bodily tissues, and also myoglobin, an oxygen-providing muscle protein.
Any deficiency in iron means that oxygen can’t be carried properly and limits the ability to be active whilst increasing fatigue. So, having enough iron is pretty important for athletes.
This mineral helps the body’s immune function to work properly, playing a role in cell division and cell growth.
Out of all illnesses that could impact an athlete's performance, upper respiratory illness (such as the common cold) causes the most disability. Some research shows that when zinc is taken as a supplement, it may reduce the common cold.
However, it turns out you can have too much of a good thing where zinc is concerned. Consuming too much zinc through supplementation can lead to headaches, stomach cramps and vomiting, whilst taking too much zinc over a long period of time can lead to lower immunity and HDL cholesterol levels.
You might know calcium as the mineral in milk that makes your teeth and bones strong, but there are other important jobs that calcium takes care of for athletes.
Calcium aids the regulation of muscle contraction and nerve conduction, which are important for the explosive power and quick decision-making athletes need.
The bottom line
Athletes need a healthy intake of vitamins and minerals to enable the best sports performance. But it’s not just athletes that should stay on top of their vitamin and mineral intake. To make sure your body is functioning at its best and getting the essentials it needs, you can take a blood test to find out your levels of vital biomarkers, including vitamins and minerals.
- Why you should check your vitamin D levels - especially if you live in the UK
- How do I know if I have enough vitamin D?
- Anaemia: the world’s most common nutritional disorder