By Helen West
Feeling sluggish, weak and tired are symptoms athletes can easily attribute to being ‘run down’, illness or over-training.
However, if these symptoms continue to occur over a prolonged period of time, it could possibly be due to iron deficiency.
Iron is an important mineral involved in many processes in the body including haemoglobin production, DNA synthesis and energy metabolism. Clinically
low levels will result in symptoms such as feeling weak or tired, dizziness, headaches, shortness of breath and pale skin. How much do I need? The
daily recommended intake for iron is currently the same for athletes as the general population. However, athletes from some sports are thought to have
a higher risk of deficiency due to higher iron requirements. Athletes who have high blood volumes (greater blood volume = more red blood cells) may
require more iron and some may experience extra iron losses through sweating and small bleeds caused by strenuous exercise. For female athletes this
is on top of the extra iron all women need to cover the losses from their monthly period.
Your iron requirements will vary depending on your age, sex and health status.
Age Men Women
14-18 11mg/day 15mg/day
18-50 8-9mg/day 15-18mg/day
50+ 8-9mg/day 8-9mg/day
Getting enough iron in your diet doesn’t have to be taxing and there are several simple dietary habits you can implement to help you meet your requirements:
Be sure to include a variety of iron rich foods (such as those listed) in your diet
Include a source of vitamin C (fruit juice, fruit, broccoli etc) with products with non-heam iron sources (like fortified breakfast cereal) as this
helps improve absorption.
Avoid drinking tea or coffee at or around meal times as the tannins in these drinks reduce iron absorption.
Avoid adding wheat germ or bran to meals as it contains phytates which reduce iron absorption.
Include lean red meat in your diet 1-4 times per week (80-100g)
Non-meat eaters can boost iron intake by including legumes with a vitamin C source at meal times or by using a cast iron pan once or twice a week
to help increase the iron content of the foods they are eating.
Good Sources of Dietary Iron include:
Offal (Do not consume when pregnant due to high vitamin A content)
Fish, particularly oily fish
Beans (lentil, kindey, soy etc)
Dark leafy green veg e.g. spinach, kale
Fortified foods e.g. rice, breakfast cereals, bread
If iron deficiency anaemia is suspected, the best way to determine whether you have a problem is to seek professional help. Single blood tests in
athletes can be misleading as intense exercise can lead to a temporary increase in plasma volume and falsely give the impression that iron status is
low. This is known in the literature as ‘sports anaemia’ and in most cases this does not require any treatment. The gold standard for addressing a
low iron problem is a combination of dietary assessment, symptom assessment and ongoing monitoring of blood levels by a qualified practitioner.