Improving Visual Performance Through Nutrition and Supplementation
Athletes can spend hours and hours training to improve their physical attributes; however, if their vision or visual processing capabilities are inadequate, their athletic performance will likely suﬀer. Sports Vision, the science of helping athletes reach peak levels of performance through the enhancement of visual skills, is becoming more and more important in training individuals of many sports.
Vision is a lot more than just visual acuity (i.e., 20/20 vision) – it involves serious processing in the retina and brain. Improvement of neural processing, and thus each of the measures listed below, involves incorporation of proper ocular nutrition. Although a good diet is certainly beneficial to vision, often targeted supplementation can play an important role in helping athletes achieve their goals.
Research has shown that adding certain vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, and essential fatty acids into your diet can help maintain or enhance some visual skills that are essential to optimal sports performance. Following are some real-world examples of visual performance measures that have been shown in double-masked, placebo-controlled trials to benefit significantly from supplementation with the macular carotenoids: lutein, zeaxanthin, and meso-zeaxanthin.1,2,3
The ability of the visual system to quickly identify and track objects against various backgrounds and lighting levels is critical to optimal visual performance.
Athletes rely on good contrast sensitivity to quickly pick up the location of objects (like a ball, field borders, or other players) in visually demanding environments. For example, if a baseball player is faced with shadows on the field, and the ball moves from sunlight into these shadows (or vice versa), accurately tracking the ball as it leaves the hand of a pitcher or off the bat of a hitter can be a nearly impossible challenge. Good contrast sensitivity will allow the player to maintain an accurate estimation of where the ball is at all times.
Contrast sensitivity is also critical for sports like skiing and golf. Skiers must be able to distinguish between different shades of white in the snow, so they know when to turn and anticipate changes in the snow or mountain conditions. Golfers with poor contrast sensitivity find it difficult to read the greens and properly assess the direction of the grain, and whether the green is slow, fast, wet, or dry.
Visual Processing Speed
Fast reaction time is crucial to sports performance. Most of what we refer to as “reaction time” is completely reliant on visual processing speed – the amount of time needed to make a correct judgment about a visual stimulus. These responses can be made with reference to many types of visual tasks for athletes, including detecting the presence of a target, recognizing a target as familiar or not (i.e., a teammate or opponent), identifying what a target is, where it is located, as well as making other types of decisions about visually complex events.4
Speed of visual processing not only has a positive impact on reaction time, but also prediction and decision making. Esports athletes must continuously adapt to fast moving targets and objects and make fast decisions. Other examples include:
- Hockey is one of the fastest sports in the world. At the professional level, the puck reaches speeds of 100 miles/hour. Players need to visually track this small black disk in motion, while keeping tabs on 11 other players in motion. A quick response can help a player control a rebound or create a turnover; help a center to win the draw, a goalie to make the save, or determine if you avoid or take a body check at the wrong time. The faster a skater processes visual information, the more effectively he/she can respond.5
- The time it takes for a pitched ball to reach the plate is approximately 0.4 seconds. Baseball batters have about 0.17 seconds to decide to hit a pitch and choose where to swing. In that time the batter needs to spot the pitch, assess the rotation and direction of the ball, and make a decision whether to swing or not.6 If the batter swings 7 milliseconds too early or 7 milliseconds too late, it’s likely to be a foul ball.7
Nearly all athletes know the struggle in dealing with glare – either from the sun or stadium lighting as well as when the sun is reflected off surfaces such as water, snow, pavement, and sand. Glare can cause an individual to squint their eyes, blink rapidly, avert their eyes from their task, and generally lose concentration – all factors that negatively impact sports performance.
The presence of glare can produce problems both in detecting an approaching object and in judging its trajectory and time of arrival.8 For a wide receiver in football, looking up into glare from the sun or stadium lights to locate an incoming pass can be an incredibly difficult task to accomplish. First, the light may be uncomfortably bright, which leads to the natural reaction to look away or close the eyes. Secondly, the glare casts a “veil” over the entire visual field, which greatly reduces the ability to see anything – including the ball. Lastly, after looking at a bright source of light, it takes time to recover normal vision, which may prevent the receiver from accurately processing visual information immediately after viewing the light so that he/she might catch the pass.
Vision and Nutrition: A Conceptual Change
Nutrition is increasingly recognized as a key component of optimal sporting performance. A growing body of evidence confirms that visual abilities can be strengthened and enhanced by means of appropriate visual training. The idea that nutrition may contribute to enhanced visual performance is relatively new – but it is an idea strongly rooted in science, with several published studies showing that good nutrition, specifically high levels of lutein, zeaxanthin, and meso-zeaxanthin, have measurable effects on visual function, which may lead to improvements in on-field performance.
Optometrists with expertise in sports vision assessment and training, along with other professionals such as ophthalmologists, athletic trainers, coaches, and nutritionists can work together to help athletes improve visual function through training as well as provide guidance on nutrients that support eye health and can help contribute to enhanced athletic performance.
- Stringham JM, Stringham NT, O'Brien KJ. Macular Carotenoid Supplementation Improves Visual Performance, Sleep Quality, and Adverse Physical Symptoms in Those with High Screen Time Exposure. Foods. 2017 Jun 29;6(7):47.
- Stringham JM, Garcia PV, Smith PA, McLin LN, Foutch BK. Macular pigment and visual performance in glare: benefits for photostress recovery, disability glare, and visual discomfort. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2011 Sep 22;52(10):7406-15.
- Bovier ER, Hammond BR. A randomized placebo-controlled study on the effects of lutein and zeaxanthin on visual processing speed in young healthy subjects. Arch Biochem Biophys. 2015 Apr 15;572:54-57.
- Owsley C, Visual Processing Speed Vision Res. 2013 Sep 20; 90: 52–56. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0042698912003896?via%3Dihub
- The Vision Development Team, “Sports Vision Training for Hockey Players,” https://www.sensoryfocus.com/eye-care-services/sports-vision-training/sports-vision-training-for-hockey-players/, Accessed, 4/21/21
- Clark J, Ellis J, Bench J, Khoury, Graman P, High-Performance Vision Training Improves Batting Statistics for University of Cincinnati Baseball Players, PLoS One. 2012; 7(1): e29109.
- Wilbert M, (Blog – Baseball: The Physics of Hitting a Fastball) https://www.brainscape.com/blog/2015/06/baseball-physics-hitting-a-fastball/ Accessed, 8/24/18
- Gray R, Wilkins L, Lost in the Lights: The Effects of Glare on Catching Performance, Journal of Vision September 2015, Vol.15, 597 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281435866_Lost_in_the_Lights_The_Effects_of_Glare_on_Catching_Performance
This important health information has been made available thanks to an educational grant provided by MacuHealth. Reference to any specific commercial product, process, or service does not constitute endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by ISVA.