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Information on the latest vitamin D news and research.

Find out more information on deficiency, supplementation, sun exposure, and how vitamin D relates to your health.

New review on vitamin D and athletic performance

In 2009, teaming up with Professor John Anderson and Professor Timothy Taft (the team physician for the North Carolina Tar Heels), I wrote the first paper on vitamin D and athletic performance in 50 years.

Cannell JJ, Hollis BW, Sorenson MB, Taft TN, Anderson JJ. Athletic performance and vitamin D. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 May;41(5):1102-1.

I say 50 years because in the early 1950s, the Russians and East Germans conducted a number of studies using tanning beds to improve athletic performance, finding significant improvement. I reviewed most of these old studies in our 2009 paper. In 1955, one enterprising German researcher substituted oral vitamin D for the tanning beds and found it replicated the effects of tanning beds on athletic performance.

I discovered the Russians and East Germans used tanning beds on their elite athletes from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s (when they stopped due to fear of skin cancer). Are you old enough to remember how the Russians and East Germans dominated international sports between the late 1950s and mid 1980s?

I first got interested in the topic in 2007 when a number of readers wrote me that vitamin D had improved their athletic performance.

John Cannell, MD. Newsletter: Peak athletic performance and vitamin D. 2007.

Now, a number of new papers are appearing reviewing vitamin D and athletes. Doctors Dana Ogan and Kelly Pritchett, of Central Washington University, wrote the latest review paper on vitamin D and athletes.

Ogan D, Pritchett K. Vitamin D and the athlete: risks, recommendations, and benefits. Nutrients, 2013.

After reviewing the topic, they made the following points:

  • As we all know, muscle weakness is probably the single most  common symptom of simple vitamin D deficiency.
  • Because athletes and sports medicine physicians are primarily concerned with performance, the effects of vitamin D on athletes are under current examination by researchers around the world.
  • Vitamin D levels in athletes are comparable to those of the general population; however, results depended largely on geographical location and type of sport (indoor vs. outdoor).
  • Many athletes report a peak in physical fitness in the summer.
  • Vitamin D supplementation in older adults showed improvements in strength and walking distance, certainly a result of improved athletic performance.
  • A recent UK study of  61 athletes found  5000 IU/day of vitamin D3 for eight weeks resulted in significant improvements (p = 0.008) in 10-meter sprint times and vertical jump. We covered this finding in a news story.
  • The body requires an estimated 5000 IU/day of vitamin D and the high levels of physical activity in athletes may result in even higher physiological demands for vitamin D.
  • Achieving optimal 25(OH)D (>40 ng/ml) can reduce the risk of debilitating stress fracture among athletes.

The authors concluded:

“Vitamin D is established as a major factor in preventing stress factors and optimizing bone health, both of which are of great importance to the athlete. Rates of vitamin D insufficiency in athletes vary among studies, but most researchers agree that athletes should be evaluated regarding vitamin D status and given intake recommendations to maintain optimal 25(OH)D levels >40 ng/mL. Not only does vitamin D assist in growth and maintenance of the bone, but it also aids in regulation of electrolyte metabolism, protein synthesis, gene expression, and immune function. These vital functions are essential for all individuals, especially the elite and recreational athlete.”

This paper’s review of vitamin D’s role in injury prevention reminded me of a young athlete who suffered a much publicized compound fracture. On national television in the last NCAA basketball tournament, Kevin Ware of Louisville suffered a compound fracture of his tibia. If you care to watch the injury, you can certainly find a YouTube video of it, though I warn it’s not for the fainthearted (simply YouTube search ‘Kevin Ware’).

It doesn’t make any sense to me how such an injury could occur in a game of basketball. Compound fractures usually occur in things like car accidents, not while we’re doing routine human activities like coming down after jumping. You have to speculate that Kevin’s bones were not healthy, and he may have been severely vitamin D deficient. Forbes magazine speculated just that.

David Kroll. Kevin Ware and Vitamin D Deficiency in African-Americans. Forbes, 4/02/2013.

  About: John Cannell, MD

Dr. John Cannell is founder of the Vitamin D Council. He has written many peer-reviewed papers on vitamin D and speaks frequently across the United States on the subject. Dr. Cannell holds an M.D. and has served the medical field as a general practitioner, emergency physician, and psychiatrist.
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3 Responses to New review on vitamin D and athletic performance

  1. Rita and Misty says:

    I know from personal experience, that significant life changes often appear at first glance to be quick and to occur on the turn of a dime.

    For example:

    • Fifty years ago, my mom and dad were planning to retire to Miami Beach when the rabbit died and the stork announced the birth of their first (and only) unexpected and very late life bundle of joy (me).

    • Ten years ago, my son Michael, insisted to me and his dad that he fully intended to finish a costly graduate degree program in music (he dropped out 18 months later to pursue another costly graduate degree in engineering).

    • Seven years ago, I was happily employed by the City of New Haven, doing budget work for one of its larger departments, and naively thinking I would sit at that desk until the year 2030 (then the economy tanked, municipalities all over the US down-sized, and I was put out to pasture).

    But none of these changes were really, truly that sudden and/or without basis. It just looks that way upon first glance.

    We know that change occurs in very small, sometimes barely noticeable increments. Yet, when the change is complete, many times the final endeavor has taken on a much different shape and form from its original concept (just ask my mom…she still tries to fit me in those baby clothes..but they won’t stretch enough anymore).

    I am jovially attempting to say that, while it certainly may feel that very little progress has been made on our vitamin d journey, this would be incorrect.

    In my opinion, tremendous strides have been made since “… the academic vitamin D powers that existed in the 1980s and 1990s would not let [Walter Stump] publish his results in mainstream journals, nor let him give talks at mainstream meetings.” (JJ Cannell, October 6, 2012, members blog)

    We have traveled such a long way since Dr. Stumpf’s experiences. One need only peruse fellow VDC member, Henry Lahore’s Vitamin D Wiki, to see the myriad of studies now performed on D.


    I think it’s natural for us in the vitamin d community to feel a bit tired (ok, exhausted)on this journey toward bringing vitamin d into the medical mainstream. Some of us have been carrying this burden much longer than others. And, it may often feel like no one is listening to us…(or perhaps it may even feel worse). That’s precisely the time we need to step back and review just how far we’ve come since the experiences of Walter Stumpf, to take pride in the very real fact that we each in some way have made such a positive impact upon our world, and to garner strength to endure the work that still needs to transpire so that vitamin D may gain its necessary place in mainstream medicine.

    Our collective health depends upon this effort.

    Fifty years is a very short time, ten years is even less. You have been instrumental in creating real progress in less than a lifetime, Dr. Cannell.

    In other words, I do think that vitamin d will be accepted, one day, by mainstream medicine. And when that day does occur, it will seem to many people that the change was quick and happened on a dime’s turn. But we here will know, and fully appreciate, the real, significant and long-term efforts that went into this successful endeavor. And I’m certain that the final impact will be much different, and greater, than any of us expect at the very present moment.

    Life is simply weird that way.

    Olympic Champions – Moscow 1980 Team – Soviet Union


  2. IAW says:

    To: Rita
    Thanks for the reminder of how far we have come even though there is a “ways to go”!!!

  3. Rita and Misty says:

    Dear IAW~~they say it is darkest before the light of day…

    I do what I can to bring people to the Vitamin D Council. Those that make the cyberspace trip always tell me that it is great to finally find a trustworthy site on health and nutrition, and means a great deal to them to read the words of a physician who remembers he took the Hippocratic Oath. This is very important to people…it is reassuring in a day and age when much on the internet is not…

    We are lucky to have the Vitamin D Council. Everyone here knows I feel that a united approach is always best. I highly recommend we give this all our best and chat up the Vitamin D Council wherever and whenever we can…

    Be well,