Surprisingly low levels of Vitamin D in Cyclists

There is growing evidence that for athletes, being replete in vitamin D is important for many key areas of health and performance. For bone health, muscle strength and to support immune function.


At the recent International Association of Dance Medicine conference, in addition to presenting on Dance Endocrinology I also took part in a “duel” on vitamin D to argue the case for vitamin D supplementation, in dance/athletic populations. In fact Vitamin D is a type of steroid hormone. An article in BJSM discussed the synergistic action of steroid hormones, in particular vitamin D and the sex steroids. In dancers who train in studios inside, away from the sun then there is evidence that levels of vitamin D can become low, particularly during winter months. Supplementing with vitamin D in these elite female dancers reduced injuries and significantly improved muscle strength and jump height.

What about athletes that train outside? What about male athletes? You might think that competitive road cyclists would benefit from plenty of time spent outside and that vitamin D levels would be close to athlete recommended level of 90 nmol/L. However, in our recent study of 50 competitive male road cyclists, the majority had low athlete levels of vitamin D. Even some cyclists who reported taking supplementation for this vitamin were found to have low levels, reflecting variations and uncertainties in what dose to take. Conversely some riders taking supplementation had levels that were well above recommended athlete levels. More is not necessarily better in this situation and very high levels can lead to toxicity.

Bone health in road cyclists can be compromised due to 2 factors. In the first instance, being a non weight bearing sport means lack of mechanical osteogenic (bone stimulating) skeletal loading. In addition, road cycling is a gravitational sport where being light weight confers a performance advantage in terms of power to weight ratio. This can lead to restrictive nutrition practices and low energy availability (LEA) in athletes/dancers. LEA is a situation where dietary energy intake is insufficient to support both training demands and the energy requirement to keep healthy.  So LEA has adverse effects on both health and athletic performance described in the clinical model RED-S (relative energy availability in sport). This includes a negative impact on bone health. DXA is regarded as “gold standard” quantification of impact of LEA and RED-S on bone health. In our study a specially designed SEAQ-I (sports specific questionnaire and clinical interview) was found to be the most effective indicator of poor bone health found with DXA. 28% of the cyclists were identified as having LEA with correspondingly low bone mineral density for their age.

What about the effect of vitamin D levels on bone health? In those cyclists assessed as having adequate EA from SEAQ-I, then vitamin D was an important factor in bone health. However, in those 28% cyclists assessed as having LEA, vitamin D did not feature as as such an important factor. Essentially having adequate EA is the top priority for health and performance. The other observation is that many of those cyclists in LEA, although not consuming adequate calories, nevertheless were taking plenty of supplements in the belief that this would reduce any negative effects of restrictive nutrition. This strategy does not work. The reason being that LEA causes dysfunction not just of one hormone in isolation, rather interactive hormone networks become disrupted. Hormones are crucial for supporting bone health, particularly IGF-1, testosterone and vitamin D in males. Furthermore there is evidence to show that there is a synergistic interaction between testosterone and vitamin D in men. In out study those riders with chronic LEA were found to have significantly lower testosterone than the other cyclists. So even if male athletes with LEA have adequate levels of vitamin D, then low levels of other hormones, such as testosterone, will have net negative effect on bone health.

VitD Histogram

So male cyclists are at risk of poor bone health for the following reasons:

  • Cycling is a non-weight bearing sport,
  • Vitamin D can be below athlete recommended levels, even if EA adequate
  • Long term LEA causes clinical consequences of RED-S including disruption of hormones necessary for maintaining bone health

Does this matter? An early warning sign in runners of LEA is stress fracture. In cyclists the first evidence of an issue with bone health could be vertebral fracture from a bike crash, as this is area of skeleton most adversely effected by LEA and most serious in terms of fracture site requiring longest time off bike. Moreover our study found that in some cyclists with chronic, long term LEA cycling performance in terms of 60 minute functional threshold power (FTP) was below that anticipated from training load.

To perform at your full athletic potential you need adequate EA and vitamin D.


Low energy availability assessed by a sport-specific questionnaire and clinical interview indicative of bone health, endocrine profile and cycling performance in competitive male cyclists BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine. Keay, Francis, Hind 2018

How do you identify male cyclist at risk of RED-S? BJSM, Dr N Keay 2018

Fuelling for Cycling Performance Science4Performance 2018

Synergistic interactions of steroid hormones BJSM, Dr N Keay 2018

Raising Awareness of RED-S in Male and Female Athletes and Dancers BJSM, Dr N Keay 2018

2018 UPDATE: Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) BJSM, Dr N Keay 2018

The influence of winter vitamin D supplementation on muscle function and injury occurrence in elite ballet dancers: A controlled study Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 2014


Male Athletes: the Bare Bones of Cyclists

Chris Boardman is an Olympic gold medal winner and world record breaking cyclist. However, he explains in his biography that he retired in his early thirties with weak bones and low testosterone. At the time he was treated with medication aimed at improving his bone strength, but this severely impacted his performance on the bike.

What was the cause of this superlative male athlete’s unhealthy condition that ultimately lead to his retirement? Is this still an issue for male cyclists today? Is it limited to elite professional riders?

Periodisation of key training factors support the Endocrine system to optimise performance

In 2014 the IOC published a description of relative energy deficiency in sports (RED-S), where nutrition intake is insufficient to cover training demands and the basic “housekeeping” activities of the body. This induces an energy-saving mode that impacts health and therefore athletic performance. The female athlete triad had been previously described as the combination of disordered eating, menstrual disruption and impaired bone health. RED-S goes beyond the female athlete triad to include a broader range of  impacts on systems other than just the bones and female hormone production. Significantly RED-S includes male athletes. Today, Chris Boardman would be diagnosed with RED-S.

Has this new information improved the identification and support of male athletes at risk of RED-S? In a recent pilot study, 5 out of 10 competitive amateur riders (Category 2 and above) were in the lowest age-matched percentile of body fat and 9 out 10 where in the lowest 6% relative to the population of similar age. Significantly, 7 out of 10 riders had below-average for age bone mineral density (BMD) in the lumbar spine, with two males having bone densities that would be low for an 85 year old.

Why is poor bone health a particular risk for competitive male cyclists? Depending on the type of exercise, beneficial adaptations include mechanical strengthening of specific parts of the skeletal system. For example, assuming good nutrition, runners tend to have strong hips, whereas rowers have more robust spines in terms of BMD and bone microarchitecture. Conversely the non-weight-bearing nature of cycling and the generally lower level of upper-body musculature reduce the mechanical loading forces though the spine: low osteogenic (bone building) stimuli. Although similar to swimming, in the sense that body weight is supported in the water, the major difference between these two forms of exercise is that in cycling, particularly for climbing, low body mass confers a performance advantage. This brings in the additional factor for bone health of potential inadequacies in nutrition and therefore consequences on hormone production.

An optimal balance of training, nutrition and recovery drives beneficial adaptations to exercise throughout the body. The body’s Endocrine system releases hormones that stimulate positive changes, such as the process of improving the efficiency of delivering and utilising oxygen and nutrients to exercising tissues, including the skeletal system. Any imbalances in periodisation between the three inputs of training, nutrition and recovery will compromise health and athletic performance.

Cyclists are at particular risk of insufficient fuelling. This may be an intentional attempt to maintain low body weight, which can lead to healthy eating becoming an unhealthy orthorexic pattern, where vital food groups for endurance sport, such as carbohydrates are excluded. There is also a practical element to fuelling adequately during long rides and refuelling afterwards. Consistency of nutrition throughout the day has been highlighted in a recent study of male endurance athletes where although an average 24 hour intake may be sufficient, if there are any significant deficits during this time, then this is reflected in increased adverse impact on catabolic Endocrine makers. In another study of male athletes if refuelling with carbohydrate and protein after training did not occur promptly, this lead to an increase in bone resorption over formation markers.

Recovery is an essential part of a training schedule, because the adaptations to exercise occur during rest. Sleep, in particular, is a major stimulus for growth hormone release, which drives positive adaptive changes in terms of body composition and bone turnover. Conversely, insufficient recovery time due to a packed schedule of training and work, places extra stresses on the Endocrine system. Getting to bed half an hour earlier than usual every day quickly adds up to an extra night’s sleep.

Does it matter if some areas of the skeleton are weaker than others? Yes, because this increases your risk of fracture, not just if you come off your bike, but also with relatively low force impacts. In the case of runners and triathletes, bone stress injuries are more likely to occur as an early warning sign of impaired bone health due to RED-S. Since low impact forces are absent in cycling, it may take a crash to reveal the strength of a rider’s bones. Studying the list of injuries in elite cyclists there are many fractures, with longer recovery time for vertebral fractures. So potentially cyclists can develop more severe bone health issues than other athletes, before becoming aware of the situation.

If you are a male cyclist, what can you do to prevent issues of bone health and risk of developing RED-S and suboptimal performance on the bike? Watch this space! A study is planned to investigate practical and effective strategies to optimise health and performance on the bike. In meantime there will be more discussion on “Health, Hormones and Human Performance” at the BASEM conference 22 March. All welcome, including athletes and coaches, alongside healthcare professional working with athletes.


Mechanisms for optimal health…for all athletes! BJSM 2017

Optimal health: including female athletes! Part 1 Bones BJSM 2017

Optimal health: including male athletes! Part 2 Relative Energy Deficiency in sports BJSM 2017

Lifestyle Choices for optimising health: exercise, nutrition, sleep BJSM 2017

Sports Endocrinology – what does it have to do with performance? BJSM 2017

Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports (RED-S) Practical considerations for endurance athletes

Within-day Energy Deficiency and Metabolic Perturbation in Male Endurance Athletes International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism 2018

The Effect of Postexercise Carbohydrate and Protein Ingestion on Bone Metabolism Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine 2017

Sleep for health and sports performance BJSM 2017