How important is Iron in sport?

What is it needed for?

  • Transports oxygen in the blood and muscles
  •  Involved in energy release from cells
  •  Red blood cell production
  • Immune system

A lack of Iron in the body can reduce the amount of oxygen that can be delivered to tissues which will result in the capacity of muscles to use oxygen for energy production will be reduced. When you put this into a sporting context you will see that it could have a dramatic effect on performance if you are not able to produce as much energy as you should be.

Where do you get it from?

Our body is unable to make iron so it is therefore vital that you get enough from your diet. There are a large number of food sources of iron, although some are absorbed better than others. It is split into 2 categories: Haem Iron and Non-Haem. Haem iron offers the highest absorption rate (15-18%). The best sources of haem iron include red meat, seafood and poultry. Absorption from non-haem sources is much lower (<5%). It is predominantly found in plant sources such as cereals, vegetables, legumes and nuts.

Iron absorption of non-haem can be improved by combining it with haem sources or including vitamin C rich foods with meals (e.g. fruit or juice with breakfast etc).

Excessive intakes of tea and coffee have been shown to inhibit absorption of iron.

How much iron do you need?

Source: UK Government Iron and Health Report 2010

Source: UK Government Iron and Health Report 2010

More research is currently needed on Iron requirements for athletes participating in different sports. However it is thought that endurance athletes have the highest requirements due to high iron losses which mean the figures shown above should be increased, particularly for menstruating females.

So do athletes actually need more iron?

Athletes are known to have a high risk of iron depletion for a number of reasons:

1.       High iron requirements

  • An increase in red blood cell mass means that athletes’ requirements are particularly high during times of growth.
  • Iron is lost in sweat
  • Mild trauma such as foot strike haemolysis (repeated pounding of the feet on hard surfaces) destroys red blood cells during activities such as running

2.       Increased losses

  • Iron requirements are often not achieved in athletes with restricted food intakes:
  • Eating an unbalanced vegetarian diet
  • Eating a large amount of snacks and convenience foods

3.       Dietary issues

With this in mind you should be looking to make a conscious effort to keep on top of your iron intake, particularly if you are an endurance athlete and/or female due to higher levels of iron loss.

If you require assistance with making sure you are consuming enough iron please don't hesitate to contact me.