If you are an athlete or just exercise regularly, you probably know that getting sufficient iron is essential to exercise performance. Recent findings suggest that even mild deficiency can reduce maximum oxygen uptake, aerobic efficiency and reduce endurance capacity.

What’s more, female athletes are particularly at risk for being deficient in iron, and if left untreated, can lead to anemia and amenorrhea. If you are performing any high intensity exercise, you have a higher requirement and turnover of iron, which can quickly get depleted from the body. The recommended intake for iron is 18 mg per day. If you are unsure if you are iron deficient and want to make sure you get more iron in your diet, keep reading.

Symptoms of Iron Deficiency

If you are deficient in iron, you might be experiencing some of the following symptoms: loss of endurance, loss of muscle power, low energy, lack of appetite, reduced post-workout recovery and difficulty focusing during your workouts. Many symptoms of iron deficiency are similar to overtraining, so the best way to diagnose iron levels is through a blood test.

The Result of Iron Deficiency

The body uses iron to make hemoglobin, which carries oxygen through the body. If you are lacking iron, it is hard for the body to make enough hemoglobin resulting in a reduction of blood flow and a reduction of oxygen delivery to muscles and throughout the cells in the body. This deficiency can cause greater lactate production, which ultimately leads to fatigue and reduced muscular endurance. In one study performed on female collegiate rowers, it was found that 10% of the group were anemic, while 30% of them were iron depleted and reported 2 km times that were 21 seconds slower than rowers with normal iron status.

Causes of Iron Deficiency

Iron deficiency can simply be the result of a lack of dietary iron. But in the case of athletes, it can also be the result of an increased need for iron brought on by intense training that stimulates and increase in red blood cells and blood vessel production. It can also be the result of iron loss through sweat, high exercise rate or damage to red blood cells in the feet due to repeated training and running on hard surfaces and in low quality footwear. Lastly, in case of women, it can also be the result of blood loss caused by menstruation.

Getting More Iron in Your Diet

If you are extremely active, the best way to prevent an iron deficiency from ever happening is to ensure you are getting your recommended daily value of iron, which is 18 mg per day. Although taking a multivitamin can help ensure you are getting your daily requirements, eating iron-rich foods is also important. It should be noted that iron absorption can be decreased as a result of consumption of caffeine from coffee or tea or when taken with calcium and zinc. On the other hand, citrus fruits can help enhance iron absorption.

High Iron Foods

1) Beef. Not only does beef pack creatine, vitamin B12, vitamin B6 and 24 g of protein per 3 oz serving, it also delivers 5 mg of iron. Red meat delivers a healthy amount of cholesterol that can keep our testosterone levels maintained. If you are active, aim to eat red meat once or twice per week to help maintain your iron levels.

2) Spinach. This iron-rich leafy green packs a ton of iron at 6 mg per 1 cup! Plus it also delivers calcium, potassium and vitamin A. Add spinach to your egg white omelets and to your salads.

3) Tomatoes. Just one small tomato provides 1% of your daily iron needs. Tomatoes are also rich in the antioxidant lycopene, biotin, vitamin C and vitamin A. There are many different varieties of tomatoes, which can be a great addition to salads, sauces or chili.

4) Lentils and Beans. Both of these deliver a ton of your dietary iron needs. Lentils pack 7 mg of iron, while kidney beans deliver 5 mg per 1 cup serving. They are also packed with fiber and provide a great source of slow digesting complex carbohydrates with a protein punch!

5) Potatoes. Although potatoes might get a bad wrap for being a simple carbohydrate, they do offer up some benefits when it comes to your iron needs. One small potato delivers 1.25 mg of iron plus almost 4 g of fiber and 30 g of carbohydrate,
an optimal carbohydrate choice come post-workout or carb-up day!


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DellaValle DM, Haas JD. Impact of iron depletion without anemia on performance in trained endurance athletes at the beginning of a training season: a study of female collegiate rowers. Int J Sports Nutr Exerc Metab. 2011. 21(6): 501-6.

Iron and Iron Deficiency. Recommendations to Prevent and Control Iron Deficiency in the United States. MMWR. 1998; 47 (No. RR-3) p. 5

Warren M. Health Issues for Women Athletes: Exercise-Induced Amenorrhea. J Clin End Met. 1999. 84(6): 1892-96.