Do triathletes need to take vitamin supplements? If you ask sports nutritionists and exercise scientists, you’re likely to get a divided opinion on this controversial topic. About half will say that supplementation of some vitamins may be advised for triathletes, while the remainder will take the old party line about how, if you’re eating a good mixed diet, with the increased food intake you have to meet your training demands, you’re probably already taking in enough extra vitamins to compensate for the increased vitamin turnover due to your training.
This debate is not helped, of course, by a powerful vitamin industry that spends four billion dollars per year on marketing to convince you that you need to supplement your diet to improve performance and stay healthy. And, when elite triathletes step up to the podium and tell how a certain multivitamin has helped them reach the top, it’s hard to resist the urge to give supplements a try yourself.
Why this susceptibility of triathletes and endurance athletes to taking dietary supplements? It comes from the same extraordinary drive that keeps us training day after day to improve and excel. We think that we need every edge we can get in an increasingly competitive arena, and vitamin supplements can give us that edge.
|Dispelling a Common Myth about Vitamins for Triathletes
Many triathletes believe that taking vitamins will give them more energy. This is a fallacy because vitamins do not have any calories, and therefore provide no energy. However, vitamins are important catalysts in the energy producing process, and a deficiency in vitamins in this chain will undoubtedly result in reduced energy levels.
Do vitamin and mineral supplements provide “health insurance?”
Heather Nakamura, a Seattle area registered dietician with Masters degrees in Exercise Physiology and Nutrition, says, “It depends upon the adequacy of their diet, their calorie intake, their individual nutritional needs, etc. Many endurance athletes consume a large amount of calories to meet their metabolic and training needs. A higher calorie intake often provides a larger amount of nutrients.”
“But”, she adds, “Some athletes don’t consume nutritionally balanced diets, despite a high calorie intake. They may be vegetarian, avoid dairy products, don’t consume fruits or vegetables, have food allergies, or limit other types of foods from their diet. Others may restrict their calorie intake in an effort to lose weight, limiting not only their calories but their intake of nutrients as well.”
If you do a lot of aerobic exercise your vitamin needs will increase. However, just the increased calorie intake that accompanies a high level of activity is usually enough to fill that need, making supplementation unnecessary, in the opinion of many nutritionists. Nevertheless, some people prefer to take a supplement to make up for poor-eating days. While there is no substitute for real food, a single one-a-day multi-vitamin/mineral supplement is a harmless form of “health insurance” as long as it does not provide more than 100 per cent of the Daily Values for vitamins and minerals. Taking extra won’t offer an energy boost or enhance physical performance, and in some cases can be dangerous due to overdoses.
|How do you know if you are not getting enough vitamins in your diet?
Symptoms of a diet with inadequate vitamins: chronic tiredness, frequent illness, poor concentration, poor performance and poor recovery.
Monique Ryan, in her excellent book Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, summarizes nicely with, “for endurance athletes they (supplements) are crucially important. Because of your training and stress it imposes on your body, you may need higher amounts of vitamins and minerals than sedentary people. And, as an athlete, you have a highly vested interest in keeping your immune system healthy so that illness does not put a halt to your training”. She continues, “Vitamins and minerals are essential for metabolizing energy, building body tissue, maintaining fluid balance, and carrying oxygen in the body. Vitamins and minerals also play a role in reducing the oxidative stress that is brought on by endurance training.”
So, should triathletes take multivitamins? Definitely, if you fit any of the higher risk profiles listed above, and probably if you expend large amounts of calories in vigorous training. The human body was not designed for the extended, high intensity workouts that triathletes put themselves through day in and day out. The chronic cumulative cellular and muscle damage, oxidative stress, biomechanical trauma, energy depletion, high vitamin turnover, and immune system degradation, are difficult for even a healthy, well-fed triathlete to handle and adapt to. And who does follow an ideal diet these days?
Nevertheless, these observations do not give the triathlete carte blanche to live on fast foods all day and pop multivitamin pills to compensate. The multi-sport athlete should strive to follow healthy dietary guidelines (see table below), because any nutritionist worth her salt will tell you that you get far more nutrients from whole foods, and should base your diet on them.
|Dietary Advice for Triathletes
Your diet should . . .
Contain lean meats, poultry and fish,
Have plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables,
Provide sufficient dairy, and grain products,
Limit refined carbohydrates and sugars,
Avoid excessive fats.
Eating a good diet and taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement once per day with meals can generally achieve this level of intake. Should any particular deficiency be present this may need additional supplementation.
A warning is appropriate here: ensure that your supplements do not exceed the upper limits of what is recommended by nutritionists to avoid the potentially lethal consequences of toxicity from vitamin overdosing.
Finally, you should realize that you are not taking vitamins to improve your performance. Fifty years of research show clearly that supplements do not improve endurance performance or your metabolic response to exercise. Rather, they should be taken with the objective of hastening tissue recovery, defending your immune system, and combating oxidative stress.
Advice For Taking Vitamin Supplements
- Choose a brand with 100 per cent of daily value for most nutrients.
- Take your multivitamin supplement with a meal to enhance absorption.
- Choose a supplement in which the majority of vitamin A is actually beta-carotene. Vitamin A, or retinol, should not exceed 3,000 IU daily.
- A blend of synthetic and natural supplements is fine. Look for a mix of vitamin E from tocopherols and tocotrienols. Don’t pay more for “time-release” or “chelated” products.
- If you take antioxidant supplements, keep doses to 100 to 200 IU of vitamin E and 250 milligrams of vitamin C.
- Choose a multiple vitamin in which the vitamin D source is D3, or cholecalciferol, the type that is best absorbed.
- Do not double up on your daily dose of vitamins. You may get too much of certain nutrients.
- Avoid mega dosing.
- People over 50 can opt for iron-free formulas and should look for B6 and B12 content in the higher range.
Roy Stevenson has over 200 articles on running, triathlons, sports, fitness and health published in over fifty international magazines.
Heather Nakamura, MPE, MS, RD is a registered dietitian with Masters Degrees in both Nutrition and Exercise Physiology. For more information, visit www.targetgoodhealth.com