Why is iron so important for athletes?

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Nutrition Blog

As an essential mineral, iron is found in every cell of the body. Its main role is to transport oxygen in the blood to the tissues. This essential mineral ensures that our muscles are working properly. It also helps the body convert carbohydrates into energy when we exercise. While the body is recovering from strenuous bouts of physical activity, iron helps us to produce the following:

  • New cells,
  • Proteins, and
  • Hormones that make us stronger.

How iron deficiency affects athletes

We lose minute amounts of iron when we sweat. This puts endurance athletes, such as long-distance runners, at risk of being deficient in iron. Without enough iron, athletes can’t use oxygen properly to produce energy. This impairs any athlete’s ability to compete to the best of their ability.

A common problem for iron-deficient athletes is the inability to maintain a steady heart rate during moderate to vigorous exercise. Female athletes – as well as those athletes who don’t eat meat –  must eat well-balanced meals. In addition, they must eat snacks before and after they train. Female athletes often suffer from iron deficiency. Studies have routinely found that they are often iron-deficient or anaemic.

A mixture of the these factors puts athletes at risk for being iron deficient:

  • Inadequate supply of dietary iron. Those athletes who don’t eat red meat find it difficult to take in the correct amount of iron.
  • Increased demands for iron. Hard training stimulates an increase in red blood cells and blood vessel production. In addition, vigorous training increases the demand for iron. (Iron turnover is highest for endurance athletes training at high intensity levels.)
  • High iron loss. Blood loss through injury, or menstruation. Many endurance athletes suffer from ‘foot strike’ damage to red blood cells in the feet. This is caused by running on hard surfaces with poor quality shoes. As a result, iron is leached from their body. As mentioned above, because iron is lost in sweat, heavy sweating leads to increased risk of deficiency.

Symptoms of Iron Deficiency and Anaemia

The symptoms of iron deficiency include loss of endurance, chronic fatigue, high exercise heart rate, low power, frequent injury, recurring illness, and loss of interest in exercise and irritability. Other symptoms include poor appetite and increased incidence and duration of colds and infections. Many of these symptoms are also common to over-training, so misdiagnosis is common.

The only sure-fire way to diagnose if an athlete is suffering from an iron deficiency is to perform a blood test on them to see if they have the correct levels of iron. If you are in one of the risk categories for iron deficiency and are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, we recommend that you consult your doctor.

What foods are high in iron?

Iron in food comes from animals and plants. If iron comes from animal sources it is known as heme iron. Common sources are meat and fish. Iron from plants is known as nonheme iron, and is found in certain vegetables and in iron-fortified foods such as breakfast cereals. Heme iron is better absorbed by the body than nonheme iron is.

Here are a number of examples of food which are good sources of heme iron:

  • Chicken livers
  • Oysters
  • Clams
  • Beef liver
  • Beef (chuck roast, lean ground beef)
  • Turkey leg
  • Tuna
  • Eggs
  • Shrimp
  • Leg of lamb

Nonheme iron can be found in:

  • Raisin bran (enriched)
  • Instant oatmeal
  • Beans (kidney, lima, Navy)
  • Tofu
  • Lentils
  • Molasses
  • Spinach
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Peanut butter
  • Brown rice

Contact Trifocus Fitness Academy

Want to learn more about sports nutrition? Check out Trifocus Fitness Academy’s Sports Nutrition Diploma to find out more! For more information about this and our other online fitness courses, please visit our website.

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