Vitamin Supplements:
Keep Taking the Tablets?
By Roy Stevenson

At least 40% of British women and 29% of British men aged 19-64, currently use vitamin supplements, and triathletes exceed those figures by another 10% because of their increased attention to their personal health and wellbeing.

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 4 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 Vitamin Supplements 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.

How can triathletes benefit from taking vitamin supplements? The reasons put forth vary from the tenuous to the convincing, but collectively present a strong case for the use of vitamin supplements for triathletes. Here are some of the justifications put forward by scientists, coaches, sports nutritionists, and triathletes alike, as to the benefits of taking extra vitamins.

To help you sift through these, I’ve rated the claims with a 3-star rating based on my review of the research and experiences. Bear in mind that these are my ratings, and will, of course, be likely to provoke some debate. I hope so!

* Not a particularly convincing argument
** A somewhat compelling reason based on research
*** Strong evidence is emerging to suggest this may be a viable reason for vitamin supplementation

*Many diligent triathletes take vitamin supplements for extra insurance, just to stay on the safe side.

*Triathletes lose more essential nutrients through sweat. Vitamins help keep vitamin reserves topped up.

**RDAs in their present form are too low for some groups, namely endurance athletes, elite athletes, and weightlifters.

**Few people eat a balanced enough diet to provide them with adequate vitamin intake of all 13 vitamins.

**Water-soluble vitamins are transient, and therefore need daily replenishment. Vitamin supplements help address this shortage.

**Triathletes who travel frequently or have erratic diets should consider supplementation to counteract vitamin deficiencies from irregular meals.

**Many people live off processed and refined foods, and foods high in sugar, that have been shown to deplete certain vitamins in our body. Too many of us consume a high percentage of nutrient-poor processed foods that have lost many of their vitamins and minerals through freezing, canning, and storage. These diets really only supply the bare minimum of nutrients necessary for survival.

**Hard training triathletes may be at higher risk than fitness runners and joggers because of their higher muscle damage and turnover. Vitamins can help heal the damaged muscle and connective tissues faster.

**When starting out on a hard, new phase of your training, such as endurance building, or interval training, you may need certain vitamins to boost your immune system, repair tissue damage and compensate for the increased demands.

**Inadequate nutrition combined with the physical stress of exercise—on top of our everyday stresses may cause vitamin deficiencies. We need to maintain high levels of vitamin reserves to meet the stresses of daily living, pollution, and hard training. Thus, even a diet that is considered ideal for sedentary people is likely to be deficient for highly trained athletes.

***Many people are on fad diets or restricted calorie diets that lead to low levels of vitamins, and thus need extra vitamins to stay healthy.

***Some people avoid certain foods because of food allergies (such as gluten or lactose). Vegetarians may need certain supplements to compensate for shortcomings in their diet.

***Some triathletes, especially young females may not be eating adequate calories due to busy schedules, eating disorders, or poor meal preparation due to lack of knowledge. Vitamin supplements will ensure that the triathlete does not have any deficiencies.

***Triathletes need extra antioxidant vitamins to counteract the increased muscle cell breakdown, free radical damage, and oxidative stress caused by running. Vitamins assist in growth, repair of tissue damage, and disarming free radical damage from stressful environments such as pollution and extreme cold.

***Endurance athlete’s immune systems are under constant attack, and taking vitamins helps bolster the immune system’s defenses.

***Endurance athletes need extra vitamins to prevent the increased risk of URTI that we experience for an hour or two after exercising.

Do vitamin supplements and minerals provide “health insurance"?

Are we any closer to determining whether triathletes need vitamin supplements or not? 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”.

She adds, “But 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% 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”.

Are we headed Towards A New Paradigm in Vitamin Supplements?

The contemporary definition of good health, upon which our Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) are based, is absence of disease—hardly an ideal condition or base for a triathlete training twice a day, or putting in 10+ hours a week of strenuous training. Perhaps we need to re evaluate the vitamin needs of competitive endurance athletes, and come up with guidelines more aligned with the tremendous energy output, free radical damage, and vitamin turnover they experience.

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 mineral and multi vitamin supplements 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 toavoid 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% 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.

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