Loving the BITE: Vitamin D for Athletic Performance and Health


“There’s no way I’m deficient…I get plenty of sunshine.” If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it many, many times.  And yet, athlete after athlete is found deficient.  If you’ve never had your Vitamin D levels checked, you may be in for a surprise.  And, if you find your motivation and mood wavering and eventually diminishing each year in the cold-weather months, you may just find out why.

In fact, it’s not only an issue for athletes, but it’s estimated that at least 25-50% of adults in the United States are deficient in Vitamin D; which is a bit ironic, as it is the only vitamin that our bodies are able to produce (with adequate sunlight).  However, it may be this ability to produce it that gives us a false sense of optimism and a lack of urgency in eating Vitamin D food sources and supplementing.  There are many reasons why we become deficient, and even more reasons to make sure you’re not.

So, what are the implications for cyclists and how can you get enough?

Start with our recipe of the week.

Recipe of the Week:  Fresh Herbed Salmon


Per Serving:

  • 4-6 oz. Wild Salmon fillet or steak
  • 1 Tbsp fresh chopped Basil (or 1 tsp dried)
  • 1 Tbsp fresh oregano (or 1 tsp dried)
  • Additional optional fresh herbs: rosemary, thyme, parsley
  • 1 tsp olive oil or avocado oil
  • 1 Tbsp capers
  • 1 small garlic clove, minced
  • 1 lemon wedge
  • Salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste


  1. Prepare Broiler.
  2. For easy clean-up, line a baking dish with foil.  Place Salmon fillets inside.
  3. Drizzle oil over salmon, distributing as evenly as possible.
  4. Sprinkle salmon with basil, oregano (and other herbs), capers, and garlic.
  5. Squeeze lemon wedge over salmon.
  6. Cover dish with foil, cut vents in foil.
  7. Broil ~10-15 minutes, until centers of fillets are cooked through and flaky.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

*** Note: Garlic may turn greenish-blue from acid in lemon juice.  It is still fine to eat it!


It’s long been known that Vitamin D is important for the absorption of calcium, and therefore, for bone health.  In fact, it was historically thought that the main benefit of Vitamin D was to reduce risk of rickets.  In the last two decades, however, more and more research is finding that Vitamin D’s reach goes far beyond bones.  In fact, it has significant implications on overall health and wellness, athletic performance, and mood.  Here’s what every cyclist needs to know:

Vitamin D for Athletic Performance:

Reduces Inflammation: After intense exercise, elevated levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines circulate throughout athletes’ bodies.  Vitamin D, along with omega-3 fats from fish oil, reduce the production of cytokines, while increasing the production of anti-inflammatory components.  This can improve recovery, reduce fatigue, and improve overall health.

Improves Immune Function: In studies, Vitamin D deficiency has been correlated with colds, influenza, and respiratory infections. On the other hand, adequate levels of Vitamin D trigger our immune system macrophage cells to release antibacterial peptides, which play a role in infection prevention.  If you want to stay well this Winter, get your Vitamin D.

Prevents Muscle Weakness and Fat Accumulation in Muscles:  Vitamin D deficiency is associated with elevated fat accumulation in muscles, which in turn reduces muscle strength and performance.  In at least one study, the deficiency and loss of muscle strength was demonstrated independent of muscle mass…muscle was actually displaced with fat AND weaker than it should be.  What’s more, there is evidence that supplementation of Vitamin D in deficient persons increases fast twitch muscle fibers in number and size, and reduces injuries (in athletes) and falls (in elderly).

Improves Overall Performance: Studies have shown a steady decline in performance in low-sunlight months, improved performance when athletes are exposed to UV rays (1950s), and peak performance when blood levels of 25 (OH) D are at or above 50 ng/mL.  What’s more, maximum oxygen uptake, or VO2 Max, drops in athletes in months when less UV rays reach the Earth, such as in late Fall months.

Vitamin D for Overall Wellness:

In addition to athletic performance, Vitamin D’s also important for:

Regulating Blood Pressure

Normalizing Blood Sugars and Insulin

Preventing Cancer, especially bladder cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate, and rectal cancer

Steady Moods and Prevention of Depression

Now that we know how important Vitamin D is, it’s no wonder that many experts believe the recommended amounts, and  “normal ranges” for lab values should be much higher than previously established.  But what other factors contribute to our seemingly inadequate intake and levels?

  1. We simply live, work, and even workout indoors too much.  Think about the Winter months…how many times have you complained that you get to work and leave work in the dark?  It’s during these short-day months that you must proactively get out and get some sunlight – take advantage of lunch breaks or any daytime opportunity to get outside.
  2. There aren’t many good food sources for Vitamin D, and of those there are, we’re not eating enough.  You can find vitamin D in: Herring (1613 IU in 3.5 oz.), Wild Salmon (981 IU in 3.5 oz.), Tuna canned in Oil (200 IU in 3.5 oz.), Milk (100 IU in 8 oz.), Eggs (18 IU in 1 large), Cheese (12 IU in 1 oz.).  Many of our foods are also now lower in Vitamin D – farm-raised fish contain lower amounts than wild fish and caged hens produce less in eggs than those that are not caged.
  3. Vitamin D synthesis works best in healthy cells.  Cells in adults who are obese or even overweight, who are not in good health,  or who are elderly may not make as much Vitamin D as they should.   In many cases, those who need the benefits of Vitamin D the most make the least.  Furthermore, those with darker skin pigmentation make less Vitamin D than those with lighter skin pigmentation.
  4. While sunscreen is obviously needed to reduce risk of skin cancer and harm to skin, it also reduces Vitamin D production.

How to Increase Your Vitamin D:

  1. Get some sun (within reason).  It only takes 10-30 minutes of midday of exposure in Spring/Summer to maximize your body’s Vitamin D synthesis at the equivalent of 10,000 IU (depending on skin tone, health, and age).
  2. For maintenance, supplement with 1000 IU to 2000 IU in Spring/Summer if you don’t get out in mid-day sun; and, supplement with 2000 IU to 3000 IU in Fall/Winter if you live in a latitude north of Atlanta, Georgia (it’s not possible to produce adequate Vitamin D in the winter months at these latitudes because the sun never gets high enough in the sky for its ultraviolet B rays to penetrate the atmosphere).  Both Vitamin D3 and D2 supplements work to raise blood levels, but it can take more Vitamin D2 to achieve the same results (D3 is from animal sources while D2 is from plant sources).
  3. If you are concerned about a deficiency, get your level checked.  Ask for a for total 25(OH)D, not 1, 25(OH)D.  Vitamin D deficiency is usually identified as <25 ng/dL, but anything less than 30 ng/dL is sub-optimal for an athlete (who “uses” and depends on more nutrients in the body than a sedentary person), and many experts recommend a goal of at least 50 ng/dL for athletes.   If you are deficient, you will need much higher doses until you are within a normal range – speak to your doctor about higher doses and retesting until it’s in the normal range.

Many nutrition strategies are difficult to implement and take a long time to show true benefit.  Not this one.  Improving your Vitamin D status is easy and can help you make noticeable improvements as an athlete, especially in the Winter months, in a relatively short amount of time.  Get sunlight, eat Vitamin D foods, and supplement.  If needed, get your levels checked.  Get and stay healthier and stronger.  There’s really no better time than now to get started.

Fuel Your Ride.  Nourish Your Body. 

Enjoy Your Ride

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6 Responses to “ Loving the BITE: Vitamin D for Athletic Performance and Health ”

  1. Peter S on October 4, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    I usually get no shortage of sunlight. I live in Florida so if I am outside quite often each week am I okay or should I still get some extra vitamin D?

    • Kelli Jennings on October 4, 2012 at 6:12 pm

      Hi Peter,
      I think you’re good in the Spring/Summer. If you get outside at mid-day (10am-3pm) for 20-30 minutes everyday in the Fall/Winter, you may be okay year-round. If not, you might want to supplement, or eat a high Vitamin D fish regularly in these months. The toxicity limits are really high, potentially around 40,000 IU per day for adults, so if you are in doubt 1000-2000 IU per day in the Fall/Winter wouldn’t hurt. Of course, you can’t know for sure without testing it. I hope this helps! Take care!

  2. Brian on October 4, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    I don’t eat fish but I understand the importance of taking vitamin D. Is there a certain supplement you would suggest?

    • Kelli Jennings on October 4, 2012 at 2:20 pm

      Hi Brian, I recommend a Vitamin D3 softgel or liquid drops. Many brands have them, and I like the vitacost.com brand for this vitamin. It’s a mini-softgel (tiny little pill) @ 2000 IU. You can find something similar at most all vitamin stores/pharmacies – mostly, look for D3 and no other artificial flavorings/colorings. Take it with a meal that contains fats, as you’ll absorb fat-soluble vitamins (like vitamin D) when eating fats. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you may prefer D2 – with this plant-based type, it’s important that you take it everyday (and not skip doses and then make up doses). Its “half-life” is shorter than D3, so it’s not as effective unless taken consistently. For others, who possibly need calcium in their diets, a Cal/Vitamin D supplement may be appropriate. 500 mg calcium + 500 IU Vitamin D is usually a good target. I hope this helps!

  3. Tim Starry on October 4, 2012 at 8:16 am

    I was referred to an endocrinologist by my primary doctor to check some troubling blood work. I also had various symptoms. One of several things she tested was vitamin D level. It was low. I now take substantial supplements and focus on vitamin D foods. One of the things she told me is that many doctors think that current daily minimums are too low.

    Vitamin D is a critical component in many metabolic functions. Improving your levels will not only improve athletic performance, it can improve other issues as well.

    • Kelli Jennings on October 4, 2012 at 10:18 am

      Thanks, Tim! I do think it’s a much bigger problem than most people realize. There is sometimes a bit of resistance with supplementing it as we all want to think we make enough naturally with sunlight. The old RDA’s of 400 IU per day are outdated and based on the previous understanding that Vitamin D’s role was limited to calcium absorption, bone health, and prevention of rickets. So, if you don’t have rickets, it’s easy to think you’re fine in terms of Vit D. Now, we know it does much more and we need more. Glad you’re getting enough now!


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Sugar Alternatives for Energy and Hydration

Question: I am using the homebrew sugar formulations (sometimes added to green tea).  I am also trying to wean myself off 1/2 dose adrenalean “lip tonic delivery system” (biorhythm brand- caffeine, hoodia g, synephrine, yohimbe) capsule for energy.

My question is other than juice, can you suggest modifications in lieu of table sugar for energy and hydration.


Both raw/organic honey or agave can work great in the homebrew (substitute in the same quantities for the sugar, or to taste), but you do have to shake well in order to make sure they don’t settle out.  Have you tried either of these?  Also, make sure to use at least the minimum amount of salt recommended in the homebrew as the temps rise, you need the sodium replacement if you’re sweating.

Sports Drink Homebrew

Please send us your questions for our Expert Sports Nutritionist, Kelli Jennings to “Ask the Sports Nutritionist“. Kelli Jennings is a Registered Dietitian with a passion for healthy eating, wellness, & sports nutrition. For more information go to www.apexnutritionllc.com.

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