Iron deficiency is a common problem for athletes, particularly females. Iron deficiency can impair performance due to a decreased delivery of oxygen to the muscles.

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Iron is needed for

  • transporting oxygen in the blood and in the muscles

  • the electron transport system – which helps with release of energy from the cells

  • making red blood cells

  • a healthy immune system

Iron and running

Runners has an increased risk of iron depletion because of 1. increased requirements, especially during times of muscle growth, 2. increased losses in sweat, GI bleeding, and even repeated pounding of feet on hard surfaces and 3. dietary issues e.g. consuming a poor vegetarian diet, a low energy diet or poor food choices.

Do I have true iron deficiency or is it just sports anemia?

Iron status is hard to assess and a false anaemia may be diagnosed if only one measurement is done. Early in an exercise programme, the volume of plasma in the blood may be increased, this can dilute red blood cell levels and mimic the profile of iron deficiency anaemia which is called sports anaemia. It is therefore important to track and monitor iron status over time.

Several abnormal blood profiles over time should be accompanied by symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, breathlessness and impaired endurance capacity, to make diagnosis of true iron deficiency anaemia. When iron deficiency is diagnosed, a doctor will prescribe a supplementation.

An iron supplement should only be taken when prescribed by a medical doctor.

Rich sources of iron

Iron deficiency may be prevented by consuming foods rich in iron:

Well-absorbed iron sources: Liver, beef, chicken, fish (canned tuna or salmon), oysters. Remember the “redder” the meat the higher the iron content.

Plant sources that are not as well absorbed but still good sources of iron that can contribute to total daily iron intake: Fortified breakfast cereals, eggs, wholemeal bread, lentils and other legumes, nuts e.g. cashews and almonds.

To help with absorption of iron, combine iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods and avoid the combination of iron-rich foods with tea, coffee, red wine and milk products.

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