Iron Deficiency In Athletes

Iron deficiency in athletes is easy to miss. As an athlete training hard, it’s critical that you are staying aware of your nutrition. The foods you eat will have a very strong influence on your performance. As you go about your training, a proper diet can get you on the track to success.

This said, one condition that many athletes often overlook is that of iron deficiency. This condition is also 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. It 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. As a result, 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. Their endurance levels may be so low that they may not be able to work out as they used to.

Iron deficiency in athletes can also result in poor muscular strength. Oxygen is needed while exercising at an increased rate. When your red blood cells don’t deliver enough oxygen, you are going to see problems.

Finally, you might also notice that your recovery between sessions has decreased. It might take you longer to bounce back after each workout. This can make it harder to keep up with your regular training sessions.

In more serious cases, iron deficiency can also result in dizziness and/or a lack of ability to focus. This can become quite dangerous for athletes participating in intense physical activity.

A female athlete with iron deficiency training outside

Female Athletes With Anemia

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

Women typically tend to experience this issue the most frequently because they lose 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. Iron deficiency in female athletes can prevent them from training and performing at their best levels.

The second group of people who are at a high risk of this issue are vegetarians. While you can find vegetarian sources of protein, 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 the most from using an iron supplement in their diet plan. They should still focus on eating plenty of iron-rich vegetarian foods. However an iron supplement can give them the back up support that they need.

How To Prevent Iron Deficiency

To prevent iron deficiency in athletes, the first step is to visit a 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 an athlete with iron deficiency, some of the best foods to eat more of include:

  • Lean red meat
  • Oysters
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Spinach
  • Collard greens
  • Dried fruit
  • Iron-fortified cereals

To really make the most of your non-heme iron-rich food choices, also aim to pair them with foods rich in vitamin C. Vitamin C helps with the absorption of the mineral. Great sources of vitamin C include oranges, strawberries, grapefruits, tomatoes, and bell peppers.

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. This is another great benefit of heme-iron

A Final Note

Finally, you should keep in mind that 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 iron deficiency in athletes more likley.

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%. A cup of tea decreased iron absorption by 64%.

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

These are some of the facts you have to know about iron deficiency. It is 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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