Vitamin D Supplementation for Athletic Performance

Vitamin D Supplementation is Beneficial for Athletic Performance
Posted on 01/23/2020
Vitamin D Supplementation is Beneficial for Athletic Performance

Elora Pixler B.S. LAT, ATC
Asst. Athletic Trainer
Chaparral High School

It has been estimated that three-fourths of the population of the United States suffer from vitamin D deficiency. Even less of that population in the United States are elite athletes. With that statistic, it would be easy to assume that most elite athletes in the United States would suffer from vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D plays an important role in athletic performance in a few ways. Vitamin D is directly correlated with bone health, skeletal muscle performance, and the immune system. Vitamin D is important for calcium regulation and storage in the body. According to Sikora-Klak et al., Vitamin D is also directly related to type II muscle fibers, which are important for muscular power. In vitamin D deficient subjects that this study used, they took biopsies of their muscle tissue prior and post supplementation. The muscle atrophy found prior to supplementation was found to be significantly reduced post supplementation in this study.

Vitamin D can be absorbed through just 15 minutes of sun exposure each day. However, it is often difficult in locations where there is a lack of sunshine. Therefore it would be beneficial for athletes to supplement with over the counter capsules in those locations north of the equator. It has also been found that individuals with darker complexions do not absorb vitamin D through their skin efficiently, so supplementation and/or a diet change would be more beneficial to that population of athletes.

Unlike other ergogenic aids advertised to young athletes, vitamin D is relatively inexpensive. Over the counter supplementation of vitamin D can potentially be more beneficial for the athlete, due to the fact it eliminates the ultraviolet rays, taking the possibility of sunburns and risks of skin cancer out of the equation. You can also supplement vitamin D through diet by ingesting foods such as fatty fish (ex: salmon), leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and collard greens. Most brands of milk and orange juices are also fortified with vitamin D. The only issue with ingesting it through foods is that it can be hard to keep exact measurements of how much vitamin D is being ingested.
It should be kept in mind that it is possible to overdose on vitamin D as it is a fat-soluble vitamin. However, the chances are very unlikely, as an individual is not able to buy a high enough IU (international unit) count over the counter for vitamin D toxicity to occur. It is estimated as long as an individual does not exceed 60,000 IU’s daily for months on end (according to the Mayo Clinic), vitamin D toxicity will not occur. The vitamin should ONLY be taken as recommended on the bottle to prevent overdose. Common signs and symptoms of vitamin D overdose include elevated blood levels, nausea, vomiting, poor appetite, stomach pain, constipation, and diarrhea.

In a study conducted by Fishman et al., they found that of the athletes in the NBA combine from 2009-2013, 47% of the athletes measured were vitamin D deficient. They also found that the athletes who had optimal vitamin D levels were taller and had more lean muscle mass when compared to athletes who were not. These athletes could potentially be bigger in size due to the direct relationship vitamin D has with the storage and transport of calcium in the body and also the direct relationship vitamin D has with hypertrophy in type II muscle fibers, which, as mentioned earlier, are important for muscular power. In another similar study conducted by Mathyssek et al., they utilized NFL athletes. This study collected vitamin D levels from 80 NFL athletes in the 2011 offseason. Unlike the NBA athletes, the NFL athletes spend more time outdoors, which would give them more opportunities to be exposed to vitamin D. As a result, one would think the NFL athletes would have sufficient vitamin D levels. Unlike the study on NBA athletes, Mathyssek et al. took ethnicity into account, as individuals with a darker complexion do not absorb vitamin D as efficiently from the sunlight. Both studies also came to the conclusion that athletes who had lower vitamin D levels also had a history of fractures and stress fractures, potentially due to the relationship between vitamin D and calcium storage. In both studies, the athletes that were offered positions in the NFL and NBA had significantly higher vitamin D levels than the ones who were not drafted or not offered positions due to poor performance or injury.

In another similar study, vitamin D levels were measured in Canadian hockey players (ages 18-35), ranging from minor league teams all the way to the NHL. The majority of the hockey athletes were deficient in vitamin D as Canada does not have optimal sunlight for vitamin D absorption, and hockey is typically an indoor sport. The hockey athletes that suffered from vitamin D insufficiencies tended to be in the younger age group. The younger athletes were, on average, three years younger (therefore not as experienced) than those athletes with higher vitamin D levels. The athletes that had higher vitamin D levels not only performed better in their sport (perhaps due to their years of experience). They also sustained fewer injuries, which lead them to have a longer career. This study’s results were unexpected, as hockey is typically an indoor sport. However, the majority of hockey players are of a lighter complexion. As stated previously by Mathyssek et al., athletes with more melanin lack the ability to absorb vitamin D as efficiently. As a result of the trend toward lighter complexion, hockey athletes (typically) would better absorb vitamin D with their limited time spent outside.

From the information gathered from these studies, vitamin D seems to be a very important component for enhancing athlete performance as it appears to enhance vital components of athletic activity such as increasing muscular power and possible injury prevention. However, since it is a relatively new subject, more research is needed. Vitamin D is relatively safe as long as one measures the athlete’s vitamin D levels before recommending supplementation. Thus, the parent/athlete could utilize this as a suggestion to their patient/athlete/child to aid in their athletic performance without having to be worried about what the athlete is using as an ergogenic aid and its possible adverse effects. In conclusion, the athlete would have to take very high amounts of vitamin D in order to have adverse side effects. It is also important to keep in mind that individuals with darker complexions are usually vitamin D deficient as they do not absorb it efficiently. Vitamin D supplementation in these individuals could potentially be crucial in injury prevention as agreed upon by the studies discussed in this article. With the number of studies that have been conducted, we have enough evidence to relate sufficient vitamin D levels with increased athletic performance. Therefore it is plausible that vitamin D supplementation can, in fact, improve athletic performance and aid in injury prevention.


Fishman MP, Lombardo SJ, Kharrazi FD. "Vitamin D Deficiency among Professional Basketball Players." Orthop J Sports Med. 2016; 4(7):2325967116655742. Published 2016 Jul 6.

Grieshober JA, Mehran N, Photopolous C, Fishman M, Lombardo SJ, Kharrazi FD. "Vitamin D Insufficiency among Professional Basketball Players: A Relationship to Fracture Risk and Athletic Performance." Orthop J Sports Med. 2018;
Sikora-Klak J, Narvy SJ, Yang J, Makhni E, Kharrazi FD, Mehran N. The Effect of Abnormal Vitamin D Levels in Athletes. Perm J. 2018; 22:17-216.

Hildebrand RA, Miller B, Warren A, Hildebrand D, Smith BJ. "Compromised Vitamin D Status Negatively Affects Muscular Strength and Power of Collegiate Athletes." International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2016; 26(6):558-564. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.2016-0052.

Maroon JC, Mathyssek CM, Bost JW, et al. "Vitamin D Profile in National Football League Players." The American Journal of Sports Medicine. 2015;43(5):1241-1245. doi:10.1177/0363546514567297.

Mehran N, Schulz BM, Neri BR, Robertson WJ, Limpisvasti O. "Prevalence of Vitamin D Insufficiency in Professional Hockey Players." Orthop J Sports Med. 2016; 4(12):2325967116677512. Published 2016 Dec 23. doi:10.1177/2325967116677512

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