Iron Needs of Athletes

Why was spinach the secret to Popeye’s legendary strength? Because of one little mineral: Iron. Now, while history has shown that spinach doesn’t have anywhere near as much iron as the creators of Popeye (and the world at large) believed at the time, that doesn’t at all diminish the importance of the mineral. Since the days of Popeye, science has revealed just how important iron is to the human body. This is especially true, however, for the athlete.


Why So Important?

As a key component of both hemoglobin and myoglobin, iron plays a major role in oxygen delivery throughout your body. This oxygen, in turn, keep your muscles fueled and operating properly. An adequate supply of oxygen to the muscles, by means of myoglobin, is also important in supporting a health metabolism.

In addition to it’s oxygen-carting abilities, iron is also necessary for nearly all biological functions. This mineral is needed for health growth and development of connective tissues, as well as many hormones. Ultimately, almost every cell in your body depends on iron in order to get it’s job done correctly.

Just to illustrate the importance of iron for athletes, it’s worth considering a recent review that was published in the Journal of Nutrition. Based on their analysis of 22 different studies, the researchers found that daily iron supplementation greatly improved the exercise performance of women. The subjects performed at higher intensities, greater efficiencies and with lower heart rates.


Deficiencies in Athletes

Considering the role that iron plays in making sure oxygen gets to where it needs to be, it’s really no surprise that athletes depend on this essential mineral. What may come as a surprise, however, is that athletes are at a significantly higher risk of being deficient in iron than most people.

For starters, athletes need more oxygen. Logically, then, this means that they also need more iron. This is particularly true of endurance athletes who train at high intensities because large amounts of oxygen need to be transported quickly both during and after the activity.

Muscle growth also requires more oxygen which, again, increases the demand for iron. This important mineral is also lost in sweat and, since you’re probably perspiring as a result of exercise, that means you’re losing iron when you need it most.

An often overlooked reason for iron deficiency in athletes involves in high-impact nature of many activities. While potential blood loss from nose bleeds and other injuries is probably not news to you, foot strike damage might be a new thought. As you run, especially on hard surfaces, the blood cells in your feet suffer significant damage. This can also contribute to blood lose and, by extension, iron deficiency.

Combine all of these factors with the athlete’s tendency towards restrictive diets and it’s easy to understand why iron is a special concern for those of us living an active lifestyle.


Getting Enough

Naturally, the tendency at this point would be to start supplementing with iron on a regular basis. But don’t jump the gun. It is possible to overdose on iron which can cause toxicity and deficiencies in copper and zinc. Only take iron supplements under the direction of a doctor after being diagnosed with a severe deficiency.

That being said, however, a proper diet can go a long way in keeping your iron levels up. To increase your iron absorption, combine an iron-rich plant like multigrain bread with a meat. Adding a food high in vitamin C will also encourage iron absorption.

On the other hand, tea and coffee both decrease iron absorption when taken with an otherwise iron-packed food.

What tips do you have for managing your iron levels? Please share them in the comments.




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About jonathan.thompson

Jonathan Thompson is a Certified Personal Trainer and Running Coach with the American Council on Exercise, specializing in nutrition. In addition to his real-world experience working with clients, his articles and blogs on fitness advice have been published on many websites and magazines.