What Athletes Need To Know about Iron Deficiency

As an athlete training hard, it’s critical that you are staying aware of the nutrition that you’re taking in on a regular basis. The foods you eat will have a very strong influence on the performance you see as you go about your heavy training, so by getting your diet lined up properly, you can get on track to success.

This said, one condition that many athletes often overlook is that of iron deficiency, sometimes referred to as anemia.

What is this and how will it impact you? Let’s give you some basic information to keep in mind.


What Is Iron Deficiency?

Iron deficiency, as the name suggests, is a state of not consuming sufficient iron in the diet. Iron is a mineral that is found in various foods and plays a key role in helping to form proper red blood cells, which then transport oxygen to the tissues in the body.

When you aren’t getting enough iron, you aren’t producing adequate red blood cells and as such, oxygen delivery can be hampered.


What Are The Symptoms Of Iron Deficiency?

So what does this mean for you?

First, it means fatigue. Those who are deficient in iron will often find that their muscular endurance is incredibly low – so low that they may not be able to perform their workouts as they used to.

They may also find that they have poor muscular strength levels as well. As oxygen is needed while exercising at an increased rate, if the red blood cells aren’t delivering it, problems are going to be seen.

Finally, you might also notice that your recovery between sessions has decreased as well. It might take you longer to bounce back after each workout you do, making it harder and harder to keep up with your regular training sessions.

In more serious cases, iron deficiency can also result in dizziness and/or lack of ability to focus, so this could become quite dangerous for those who are participating in intense physical activity.


Who Is Most At Risk of Iron Deficiency?

While all athletes can be at risk for suffering from iron-deficiency anemia, there are a certain group of people who are at a greater risk than others.

Women for instance typically tend to experience this issue the most frequently because they are losing blood each month with their menstrual cycle. This means they need even more iron to help produce the red blood cells that they’ve lost.

The second group of people who are at a high risk of this issue are vegetarians. While you can find vegetarian sources of protein available, plant sources of iron are typically known as non-heme iron, which isn’t quite as effective in the body as animal based heme-iron.

So for this reason, vegetarians stand to benefit most from using an iron supplement in their diet plan. They should still focus on eating plenty of iron-rich vegetarian foods, however the supplement can give them the back up support that they need.


How Can You Remedy The Problem?

If you feel you may be suffering from iron deficiency, the first step is to visit your doctor and have a blood test done. With a simple blood test, they can figure out if you are low in this mineral and need to make some changes to your diet or consider supplementation.

If you are, some of the best foods to be focusing on eating more of include lean red meat, oysters, beans and lentils, spinach and collard greens, as well as dried fruit. You can also find iron-fortified cereals as well, so this may be an additional option for some.

To really make the most of your non-heme iron-rich food choices, also aim to pair them with foods rich in vitamin C as this vitamin helps with the absorption of the mineral. Keep in mind that if you are eating heme forms of iron (from animal sources), you won’t need to worry about adding vitamin C with them, which is another great benefit of this particular form of the mineral.

Great sources of vitamin C include oranges, strawberries, grapefruits, tomatoes, and bell peppers.


A Final Note about iron

Finally, you should also keep in mind that in addition to eating iron-rich foods with sources of vitamin C to help boost the absorption, you should be refraining from consuming too much coffee, tea, or wine in your diet plan. These liquids contain compounds that can reduce how well the body is able to use the iron, making you more likely to suffer deficiency.

In one study published in the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that having a cup of coffee along with a hamburger meal decreased iron absorption by 39%, while a cup of tea decreased it by 64%.

If you are already teetering on being deficient, it’s best to really ensure these are not part of your diet plan.

So there you have the facts to know about iron-deficiency anemia. It’s a condition that can be well managed provided you make a few changes to your diet and supplementation program.



Morck, Timothy A., S. R. Lynch, and J. D. Cook. “Inhibition of food iron absorption by coffee.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 37.3 (1983): 416-420.


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