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The Effects of Exercise Training and Competitive Sport on Vitamin Needs

An athlete in regular training and competition will have a requirement for a higher intake of vitamins compared to a sedentary individual. Exercise, even of the moderate kind, places extra stresses and demands upon the body and metabolic processes are increased, all requiring the use of vitamins taken in from food and drink. Heavy exercise and competition increase vitamin requirements further.

During training, the athlete is taking in and utilizing much more oxygen as part of the energy production process than when at rest. Increased use of oxygen results in a higher level of free radicals which need to be disarmed by the antioxidant enzymes (which are created from vitamin B2 and a number of minerals) and the antioxidant vitamins, A, C and E. Without a good supply of antioxidant vitamins, the athletes' body is likely to incur a high level of free radical damage. As well as potentially causing disease, free radial damage has also been connected with post exercise muscle soreness, therefore, a lack of these vitamins might mean that the athlete finds it harder to recover from training and competition. Athletes training outdoors are also at risk of free radical damage from pollution in the air.

Training increases the physical stress on the body which depletes the body of vitamin C and the B vitamin complex. Also the energy production process requires all the B vitamins and biotin, either directly or in the creation of enzymes needed for energy production. All these vitamins are water-soluble and cannot be stored in the body, without an adequate daily supply, the athlete would soon be lacking in energy and finding training difficult.

Red blood cells are vitally important for energy as they transport oxygen around the body, making them essential for good athletic performance. Iron is required for red blood cell formation and good intake of vitamin C aids absorption of iron from food. Vitamin B12 is also required in the formation of red blood cells. Low levels of red blood cells, or anaemia, can reduce VO2max and impair performance so athletes need to ensure a good intake of these nutrients.

During training, damage to muscles occurs and stress is placed on ligaments, tendons and bones. The body has to repair damaged structures and strengthen them against the possibility of future damage. Vitamin B6 and folic acid help in this process as they are needed for amino acid metabolism. Vitamin C is also important for repairing and strengthening tissues as it is needed for production off collagen found in skin, bones and connective tissues.

In order to ensure the athlete's body is functioning optimally, able to withstand heavy training and competition, able to recover well from training and be generally healthy with a strong immune system, they would need to ensure a high intake of vitamins. It is highly likely that the athlete will need these vitamins at levels higher that the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA), which is just designed to prevent deficiency diseases.

An athlete is likely to be eating more food than the average sedentary person and therefore likely to be consuming more vitamins, but the extra consumed may not be enough to cover the extra requirements as a result of their training. Also, many antioxidant vitamins are obtained from fruits and vegetables, and as these foods are high in fiber it would be difficult for an athlete to consume much more of them than should be consumed by a sedentary person, as the bulkiness of these foods may leave them too full to consume the higher carbohydrate foods required to fulfil their energy needs.

Therefore, it is recommended that the athlete eats mostly nutrient rich foods in the form of unrefined carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables and quality protein and that they also look at backing this up with a vitamin supplement. When choosing a supplement, they should look at the Suggested Optimal Nutrient Intakes (SONAs) which have recently been established. These give levels of vitamins which more closely match what is needed for optimal health and are more likely to cover the needs of an athlete.

Helen writes on all aspects of running, fitness and nutrition.

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