A number of years ago, if you spoke to me about iron, it related to how much of the stuff I could lift. But since being slightly more educated in nutrition these days, it relates more to the stuff we get in our food to help with a healthy blood cell count. As athletes, iron is very important to us and even a slight reduction in iron levels can have major effect on our energy levels, oxygen uptake and endurance capabilities.
The rate of iron deficiency in athletes compared to the general population is quite low, but still high enough to be of concern to those that are affected. Studies are quite varied on these numbers, but the average seems to be between 10-15% for female athletes and 1-5% for males.
Sufficient iron levels are so important to athletes for many reasons. But the main one is the fact that it helps transport oxygen in red blood cells and to the mitochondria which is the body’s powerplant. That combined with iron being a major factor in red blood cell production, acid/base balance and thyroid function you can get an idea of how just a small deficiency can make such a big difference.
A study carried out by the University of Melbourne found that – Women who take iron supplements experience a marked improvement in their exercise performance, a new study shows. Iron supplementation improved women’s exercise performance, in terms of both the highest level they could achieve at 100% exertion (maximal capacity) and their exercise efficiency at a submaximal exertion. Women who were given iron were able to perform a given exercise using a lower heart rate and at a higher efficiency.
Symptoms can include low energy, general apathy towards everything, pale skin (anemia), slower recovery and an inability to do the same amount of reps you previously had no issue with. These are not the be all end all, but getting tested for your iron levels is a great start.
So what do we do? Do we just start eating more foods that are high in iron like red meat (including organ meats), eggs and leafy greens? This would be a great start, but there are also foods that can reduce your absorption of iron.
Many of you would be familiar with my stance on the high grain diet and that I don’t really support it. Although when they are used in the right way, they can be a great ally to your health, energy and recovery. Just be warned though, Vicki Deakin (head dietitian at the ACT Academy of Sport) suggests that high carbohydrate diets recommended for athletes may be high in compounds that inhibit iron absorption.
Really what this means is that if you are in the high risk category of being iron deficient (especially women of child bearing age), have more than one symptom associated with a deficiency or have been diagnosed as deficient, you should be ensure you eat plenty of iron rich foods and even supplement if necessary.
I certainly hope this article was relevant to you, and if you do have a deficiency, I think one of the best ways to get iron back into your diet is with eating red meat and liver. It is a strong taste that not many of us enjoy (although our grandparents would probably disagree), but done in a nice beef casserole, the taste will get washed out partially and be far more palatable. Just be sure to drink the broth too!