Do athletes have special dietary needs as compared to their more sedentary counterparts? Are supplemental micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals required for optimal performance?
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, athletic performance is enhanced by “optimal nutrition,” and athletes who consume a variety of healthy foods should not require supplementation. However, the College acknowledges there may be circumstances where supplements are beneficial, such as athletes on restricted diets or involved in sports that require severe weight-loss techniques.
Apparently, some of the most famous athletes of our time disagree. Enter Adam Bornstein, Tristin Kennedy, Alex Guerrero, and Jose Alazar.
Bornstein is the nutritionist for Lebron James, who spends some $1.5 million each year on his body.
Tristin Kennedy prepares daily nutrition and supplementation plans for Conor McGregor.
Alex Guerrero monitors everything Tom Brady puts in his body, and Joe Burrow used his first pro paycheck to hire Jose Alazar to curate his meals. These athletes recognize the importance of diet and supplementation for peak performance, injury avoidance, maintaining a competitive edge, and extending their careers. Lebron James, the all-time points leader in NBA history, is in his 19th season, and Tom Brady recently retired at the age of 44 with seven Super Bowl rings – that’s long-lived peak performance!
Based on the size of the Vitamin and Supplement business in the U.S., estimated at nearly $36 billion by IBIS World, a majority of consumers (77% of U.S. adults) agree.
Whether you’re a world-class athlete, weekend warrior, or simply health-conscious and interested in preventative health, ensuring you meet your micronutrient needs is essential.
This article explains the critical roles of vitamins and minerals in bodily functions, focusing on the unique needs of athletes, with a review of RDAs (Recommended Daily Allowances) and safe Upper Intake Levels (ULs). We explore the benefits of micronutrient supplementation, identify additional ergogenic aids for the athlete, and present our recommendations for the best brands and items available in a bonus section.
Why Athletes Need Vitamins
Vitamins and minerals, also known as micronutrients, are essential nutrients needed to carry out a range of normal bodily functions. Termed “micro”- nutrients, as your body needs these compounds only in very small amounts. In addition to being necessary for certain metabolic processes, they also support growth and development and help maintain bone health. Except for vitamin D, these micronutrients are not produced in the body and must be sourced through diet and supplementation.
Vitamins are organic molecules, essential nutrients, either water- or fat-soluble.
The B-complex group and vitamin C are water-soluble, absorbed quickly into tissue for immediate use, and are eliminated in urine. Since we do not store water-soluble vitamins, they must be replenished regularly.
The fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K are absorbed along with fats in the diet and stored in the body’s fatty tissue and liver. Since excess of these vitamins is stored in the liver, they do not need to be consumed quite as frequently.
Minerals are inorganic substances present in soil and water that naturally occur in pure form. Most athletes are familiar with minerals in the form of electrolytes – sodium, calcium, potassium, chloride, phosphate, and magnesium. Additional minerals and trace minerals (those needed in very small amounts), such as iron, zinc, and selenium, are essential for good health.
In addition to normal bodily processes, vitamins and minerals also affect athletic performance as they are required in numerous reactions involved with strenuous physical activity.
Micronutrients play an essential role in energy production, metabolizing protein, carbohydrates, and fats; oxygen transfer, bone health, muscle tissue repair, and protection against exercise-induced free radical damage. Although research indicates that athletes who subject their bodies to regular, prolonged exercise may need an increased intake of micronutrients, there are no published RDAs specific to athletes.
Nutrients and Diet
Before addressing specific vitamins and minerals, their roles, and intake levels, we would be remiss if we didn’t recommend that your priority is your diet. Any discussion of supplements is premature until you meet your caloric needs for your performance goals through a food-based eating plan.
The athlete’s diet should achieve the correct balance of carbs, quality protein, and healthy fats to meet your macronutrient needs. While nutrient-dense food choices from fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, grains, and lean protein help satisfy your micronutrient needs. A variety of foods from each group is a great strategy to ensure you get the appropriate vitamins and minerals.
Since your food choices have a direct impact on vitamin and mineral consumption, we recommend you follow the 80/20 rule – opting for nutrient-dense foods 80% of the time. In a later segment, we address RDAs and upper intake levels to help you identify any deficiencies and to assist you in developing a plan to address those issues.
Essential Vitamins for Athletes
It’s equally important to understand the significance of how each micronutrient affects the body, particularly during exercise, as the appropriate daily allowance. In addition to reviewing the most important vitamins and minerals for the athlete, we provide a handy reference below.
Vitamin A and Beta-Carotene – Best known for their benefit in eye health, vitamin A and Beta-Carotene also help in protein synthesis for muscle growth and recovery, bone health, and the release of testosterone. Beta-Carotene, a precursor to the formation of vitamin A also has antioxidant properties.
B-Complex Vitamins – The B vitamins, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6, pantothenic acid, biotin, folate, and B12, play an essential role in maintaining your overall health and well-being, converting carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to energy and in the production of red blood cells. During exercise, we expend the energy produced, and B vitamins aid in the removal of excess folic acid for faster muscle repair and recovery. Female athletes are at a higher risk of vitamin B-12, B-6, and niacin deficiencies.
Vitamin C – C is a potent antioxidant that helps support healthy immune function. In addition to vitamin C helping to combat free radical damage and inflammation caused by exercise, it also plays a role in the formation of collagen necessary for good bone health.
Vitamin D – Another important vitamin for immune support and bone health, D is produced in the body when the skin is exposed to UV rays from sunlight. Vitamin D, a group of fat-soluble secosteroid hormones, has additional roles in the body, including reducing inflammation, glucose metabolism, and neuromuscular function. As reported by NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information), recent studies find that “Increasing vitamin D levels provides multiple musculoskeletal benefits. Increases in muscle protein synthesis, ATP concentration, strength, jump height, jump velocity, jump power, exercise capacity, and physical performance are achieved with increased vitamin D levels.”
Vitamin E – E is required for the proper function of multiple bodily processes in addition to its antioxidant properties. Its role in exercise performance relates to its ability to combat exercise-induced oxidative damage.
Vitamin K – K is known to help produce proteins necessary for bone health and plays a role in heart health. It is theorized that K may increase capacity during exercise by increasing cardiac output.
Essential Minerals for Athletes
Calcium – In addition to calcium, sodium, potassium, chloride, phosphate, and magnesium are all electrolytes – minerals that help balance the amount of water and the acid/base (pH level) in your body. They move nutrients into your cells and remove waste from your cells, in addition to making sure your brain, heart, nerves, and muscles function properly.
Calcium is essential for bone health, nerve function, muscle contraction, and the release of hormones.
Chloride – An electrolyte beneficial for athletes for energy and to balance the acids in your body.
Iron – The primary micronutrient required for oxygen transport from the lungs throughout the body. An iron deficiency, the most common deficiency among athletes, may cause fatigue, adversely affecting physical performance. Endurance athletes typically require up to 70% more iron than non-exercisers.
Magnesium – Magnesium is the electrolyte primarily responsible for moving sugar into your muscles during exercise and eliminating lactic acid. Magnesium also plays a role in flexibility and injury avoidance by loosening tight muscles. Those who experience chronic, painful muscle cramps are most likely magnesium deficient.
Phosphorous – Phosphorous is a component of teeth, bones, DNA, and RNA. In athletics, phosphorous is a component of ATP, increasing energy, and helps in muscle repair and recovery.
Potassium – Besides its benefits as an electrolyte, potassium aids in muscle contraction and regulating your heartbeat.
Selenium – Beneficial for immune support, the trace mineral selenium’s primary role in exercise is to help protect cells and cell membrane from oxidative stress from free radical exercise-induced damage.
Sodium – This important electrolyte helps regulate muscle and nerve function in addition to its role in hydration. Replenishing sodium during extended exercise is crucial due to its loss while sweating. To monitor sodium loss, we recommend weighing yourself before and after exercise to determine how much weight you are losing. A loss of two pounds or more puts you at an increased risk for sodium depletion.
Zinc – A trace mineral necessary for almost one hundred different enzymes that carry out crucial chemical reactions. Popular for its immune support benefits, during exercise, zinc is important for energy, muscle repair and recovery, and the release of hormones, including testosterone.
Virtually every micronutrient plays a role in exercise performance in addition to its function in essential bodily processes, particularly the electrolytes for hydration, calcium, iron, B-complex vitamins, D, and the antioxidants, vitamin C, E, and selenium. See below.
Vitamin & Mineral Intake Levels
The chart below indicates the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) or AI (Adequate Intake) for each micronutrient, accompanied by the UL (Tolerable Upper Intake Level). As requirements vary by gender, we list the levels separately for adult men and women. There are no established ULs for certain micronutrients that have not exhibited toxicity or are water-soluble, as any excess will leave through the urine.
When considering RDAs and especially ULs, remember that many foods marketed to athletes, think energy drinks, protein shakes, bars, etc., are fortified with vitamins and minerals. So, be sure to include these additional amounts in your computations.
Notes: Mcg = microgram, or one-millionth of a gram, and IU = an International Unit
Attempting to monitor the intake levels of each micronutrient daily is an arduous task. One excellent alternative for those with a less-than-perfect diet is a quality Multivitamin/Mineral supplement. As with any supplement, there are some best-in-class attributes you should seek in choosing an MVM:
- Manufactured in a cGMP-certified (current Good Manufacturing Practices) facility.
- No proprietary blends in the Supplement Panel. Each component, its dosage, and percent of the daily value should be indicated.
- Products that are independently tested by a third-party lab.
- Products certified Safe for Sport by an independent body such as Informed Choice or NSF.
For those serious about ensuring they are receiving all the essential micronutrients at the appropriate dosages and only supplementing ergogenic aids that are safe and effective, you may wish to consider consulting a dietician or nutritionist.
Certified nutritionists are trained and educated to counsel athletes to achieve optimal nutrition for their specific needs. They match your nutritional requirements to training cycles, helping the athlete peak at the right time, for injury avoidance, repair and recovery from exercise, hydration, and weight management. Nutritionists are available to anyone; you need not be a Brady, Lebron, or Burrow. They can help you achieve and maintain your ideal body mass for general health and outstanding performance.
Supplements for Athletes
Although we know a vitamin or mineral deficiency can be detrimental, many micronutrients lack the type of rigorous, clinical human trials required to validate their performance-enhancing benefits for athletes. Fortunately, other sports nutrition supplement ingredients have been subjected to scientific studies that validate their efficacy. The following are some of our favorite supplements and ergogenic aids to enhance your exercise performance.
Athletes need more protein than the normal individual and the U.S. RDA of 0.8 grams per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight. For a 180-pound man, the RDA equates to roughly 65 grams of protein from diet and supplementation. Protein is necessary to stimulate muscle protein synthesis to build and maintain lean muscle mass. If you are not meeting your protein needs through diet alone, there are several excellent options:
- Whey protein, isolate or concentrate
- Egg protein
- Micellar casein, a slower digesting protein
- Soy protein
- Milk concentrate
- Blends, some combination of the above
Protein supplements come in various forms, such as powders, bars, snacks, and ready-to-drinks.
Creatine monohydrate, the most studied supplement of all time, is a staple for most strength athletes. Another excellent alternative with purported superior absorption is creatine HCL (Hydrochloride). Both formats are featured in pre-and post-workout supplements, however they also come in standalone creatine supplements.
BCAAs / EAAs
Branched-chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine enable you to train longer and with greater intensity. Although BCAAs first appeared as an intra-workout supplement, they are also available in pre-or post-workout products or standalone BCAA supplements. The standard dosage is 5-6 grams per serving in a 2:1:1 ratio of leucine to isoleucine and valine. More recently, products include all nine essential amino acids to include the BCAAs plus histidine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, tryptophan, and threonine.
Nitrix oxide products induce vasodilation, widening your arteries to improve blood flow during exercise. The two most popular forms in sports supplements are citrulline malate and L-arginine. Another ingredient gaining popularity in the category is beetroot, featuring natural nitrates believed to help enhance NO levels. While most NO products are used in pre-workout products, they are marketed for male enhancement in some instances.
Caffeine is another extensively researched compound effective for energy, endurance, and cognitive function. Caffeine is used extensively in energy drinks, pre-workouts, and weight management supplements.
The “honorable mention” list of sports nutrition supplements could comprise an article to itself, beta-alanine, L-glutamine, betaine, tyrosine, taurine, theacrine, and so on.
We highly recommend you consult with your healthcare provider before adding any new micronutrient or ergogenic aid to your supplement regimen.
Unlike the other ergogenic aids addressed in this article supported by peer-reviewed clinical trials, there is little published scientific data that vitamin and mineral supplementation will enhance physical performance (excluding, perhaps, vitamin D). However, as noted, a micronutrient deficiency most definitely could hinder your performance and your general well-being.
Top Rated Vitamins and Supplements
Our picks for some of the best options on the market today for micronutrients and sports nutrition supplements for athletes.
We selected one product each, gender-specific, due to different requirements for micronutrients in men and women, and one product marketed more towards the athlete.
Best MVM for men, Garden of Life’s Vitamin Code for Men. All Garden of Life products are made from real whole foods. Vitamin Code for Men includes the optimal levels of each micronutrient plus more than twenty fruits and vegetables for added antioxidant support. Formulated specifically for the active male Vitamin Code contains no iron. The product is non-GMO project verified, organic, and certified by the NSF as Safe for Sport.
Best MVM for women, On Optimum Nutrition, Opti for Women. Opti for Women provides 40 active ingredients, including twenty-three vitamins and minerals at the optimum dosages. Formulated to address the unique needs of active women, each serving delivers additional iron, calcium, and folate in Vegetarian Society-approved V-caps.
Best MVM for the athlete, Animal Pak Original from Universal Nutrition. Animal Pak originated the training “pack” and still delivers the most comprehensive product on the market for serious athletes. The Original includes vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, enzymes, immune support, and liver support. With over 60 key ingredients, Animal Pak not only fills in nutritional gaps it delivers everything the serious athlete needs in the right amounts at the right time.
Honorable Mention, TB12 Multivitamin. We couldn’t resist adding Tom Brady’s TB12 Multivitamin to our review. The TB12 brand is a collaboration between Brady and Alex Guerrero. The product is formulated with essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, plus astaxanthin, zeaxanthin, lutein, and lycopene for immune and brain health, hormone balance, and general well-being.
We present multiple options again in the protein section, whey, casein, a blend, and a plant-based variety for your consideration.
Best Whey Protein, Dymatize ISO 100. For a fast-digesting post-workout, hydrolyzed whey isolate is the perfect option. ISO 100 uses a crossflow microfiltration process that preserves muscle-building protein fractions while removing excess carbohydrates, fat, and cholesterol. The result, 25 grams of protein, 2 carbs, .5 gm of fat, and only 120 calories per serving. NSF certified as Safe for Sport.
Best Casein Protein, ON Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Casein. Although fast-digesting and absorbing proteins are ideal for post-workout, there are times a slower digesting protein is preferred. Optimum’s Gold Standard Casein blends micellar and calcium caseins to create a slower-digesting, time-released protein, perfect for before bed. With 24 grams of protein, BCAAs, and almost 5 grams of glutamine for repair and recovery, ON Gold Standard is right on.
Best Blended Protein, JYM Supplement’s Pro JYM Ultra Protein. Stoppani’s Ultra Protein is a blend of milk and whey isolates, micellar casein, and egg white protein to elevate muscle protein synthesis over a protracted period. Isolates for immediate absorption and casein for a slower releasing protein, the egg white protein, bridges the gap as a medium-releasing type.
Best Plant-Based Protein, Vega Sport Premium Protein. Vega Sport delivers thirty grams of plant-based protein and only 4 grams of carbs per serving. A blend of pea, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and alfalfa, Vega is a complete protein source, with added tart cherry, turmeric, and probiotics. NSF certified.
We give you our top pick for pre-workout products to address the ergogenic aids, creatine, NO, and caffeine. Most pre-workouts include all three of these components plus additional compounds. We also provide one option for a stand-alone NO product.
Best Pre-Workout Product, C4 Sport Pre-Workout from Cellucor. Introduced in 2011 by Cellucor Nutrition, C4 has become America’s best-selling pre-workout. Available in multiple, goal-specific formulas for energy, mass, cutting, or recovery, we opted for the NSF-certified C4 Sport. This product checks all the boxes with creatine monohydrate, caffeine, and Arginine AKG as a nitric oxide precursor, plus beta-alanine to buffer lactic acid. Plus, C4 is one of the most popularly priced products available.
Best NO Product, NO2 Black from MRI Performance. Ed Byrd of MRI Performance introduced the first nitric oxide-inducing supplement, NO2, in 2002. The current iteration, NO2 Black, remains our choice as one of the best NO pre-workouts. MRI formulations continue to excel for vasodilation, muscle pumps, increased stamina, and endurance.
Best BCAA Product, Xtend Sport from Nutrabolt. Xtend has followed the C4 strategy of line extensions to address specific goals such as energy, weight control, Sport, and vasodilation. Not surprising, since Xtend is now owned by the parent of C4 and Cellucor, Nutrabolt. The Xtend Sport product is NSF Safe for Sport certified, delivers a full seven grams of BCAAs in the correct 2:1:1 ratio, and includes an electrolyte blend for hydration. The perfect intra-workout product for the athlete.
We admit to going a bit “old school” in our recommendations; however, the above products come from some of the most respected brands in the sports nutrition space for today’s athletes.