Hendrick Motorsports in Concord, NC, is one of NASCAR’s premier teams. They are not only leaving their mark in the annals of motor sports, they are leaving their mark on science.
Hendrick Motorsports is home to four of the most recognized names in racing: Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Cumulatively, Hendrick Motorsports boasts 11 NASCAR Sprint Cup championships and 218 Sprint Cup series race victories along with additional titles in the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series. Hendrick Motorsports can add scientific discovery to its accolades now that 28 pit crew members participated in a human trial with the Appalachian State University (ASU) Human Performance Laboratory at the North Carolina Research Campus.
Vitamin D2 and Athletes
The pit crew athletes participated in a Dole Foods-funded study to determine if a Portobello mushroom powder rich with vitamin D2 through exposure to ultraviolet light would have any effect on muscle function, exercise-induced muscle damage and delayed onset of muscle soreness.
Hendrick Motorsports pit crew athletes have partnered with the ASU laboratory in Kannapolis, just north of Charlotte, NC, for fitness testing for the last four years. Director of the ASU laboratory David Nieman, DrPH, FACSM, also works with other sports teams like Stewart-Haas Racing in Kannapolis and the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats. Nieman contacted Mark Morrison, Hendrick Motorsports’ head strength and conditioning coach, about pit crew members volunteering to be in the study.
“It was a six-week study during their off season when they work out a lot,” Nieman said. “We thought in the winter that their vitamin D status would be down, and we could see if we could improve muscle function.”
As part of the randomized, double-blind study, the 28 pit crew athletes had blood samples collected and muscle function tests done pre- and post-study. The muscle function tests involved leg-back and hand grip dynamometer strength tests, body weight bench press to exhaustion, vertical jump and anaerobic power tests. At the end of the six-week supplementation period, subjects completed 90 minutes of weight training-based exercise with blood samples and delayed-onset of muscle soreness ratings obtained immediately after and the first and second days post-exercise. The pit crew athletes were supplemented with 3,800 IU’s a day of the D2-enriched mushroom powder.
The results of the study proved for the first time in a human trial that vitamin D2 lowers the vitamin D3 status of the body and that vitamin D2 supplementation is associated with higher muscle damage after intense exercise. The study results were published in the December 2013 edition of the journal Nutrients in the article “Vitamin D2 Supplementation Amplifies Eccentric Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage in NASCAR Pit Crew Athletes”.
ASU and Hendrick Motorsports Collaboration
For Morrison, taking part in the study is another step in the continuing evolution of the pit crew program. Because of the pioneering work of Andy Papathanassiou, director of Human Performance, Hendrick Motorsports is recognized as the force behind the modern pit crew. Hired in 1992 as NASCAR’s first pit crew coach, Papathanassiou’s revolutionary philosophy employs team-building and strength and conditioning training. He succeeded in helping Jeff Gordon’s pit crew shave seconds off of each pit stop, contributing to the team’s preeminence on the track. Papathanassiou’s approach drew heavily from his experience playing football at Stanford University.
“Because everything a pit crew does is very short and explosive, we have to develop muscular strength. It is 12 seconds, and they’re done,” Morrison said. “We’re very research-oriented at Hendrick Motorsports because we want to make sure everything is done right. But being a strength and conditioning coach in NASCAR, there isn’t a lot of industry-specific fitness research to go by.”
Vitamin D and Health
In the body, vitamin D is important for healthy bones aiding in the absorption and metabolism of calcium and phosphorous. Vitamin D also has a role in maintaining the immune system, cognitive functions, body weight and the heart. Vitamin D deficiency is linked to rickets and other bone deforming diseases as well as some cancers, autoimmune diseases, hypertension and infectious diseases.
D2 is a plant-based form of vitamin D. Vitamin D3 is produced from sunlight interacting with the skin or from the ingestion of some meats and dairy products. The two types of vitamin D differ chemically by one double bond.
Vice President of Nutrition Research and Director of the Dole Nutrition Research Institute Nicholas Gillitt, PhD, explained, “Typically when people refer to vitamin D supplements, they think vitamin D2 and D3 are interchangeable. We have illustrated one example where that is not the case. That might not mean that D2 is harmful in all cases. We have identified one scenario where it is not good.”
Dole Foods Nutrition Research Laboratory at the NC Research Campus collaborates with Nieman’s laboratory. Together, they have published findings such as the effectiveness of bananas as an energy source during exercise over commercial sports drinks, and the metabolic afterburn and enhanced absorption of blueberry polyphenols due to exercise.
For Morrison and the Hendrick Motorsports pit crew athletes, they won’t be using a D2 supplement. They will continue their partnership with the ASU laboratory at the NC Research Campus for physical fitness testing and look forward to advancing their record on the track and in the chronicles of science.