Competitive athletes and serious gym rats need to access every ounce of energy they have available. Just one small problem: Heavy training combined with work and life’s stresses can make it difficult to stay on track with a strict diet and intense workouts. While most would attribute fatigue to a busy schedule, your tiredness and lack of motivation during the toughest of times may have a simple remedy: iron supplementation.
Iron is a trace mineral that’s critical for maximal athletic performance because of its role in energy production, oxygen delivery and acid-base balance, not to mention that it’s a central part of hemoglobin in red blood cells (the cells that carry oxygen to active tissues). Many studies illustrate that iron deficiency limits exercise performance and may thereby hamper your gains.
Overall, women tend to have more cases of iron deficiency than men because of lower dietary iron intake and increased iron losses via menstrual blood flow. However, athletes on strict diets tend to consume less iron than the general population while also losing more of it by way of exercise-associated sweating, urinating and reduced iron recycling. A recent review published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism reported that as many as 13 percent of women and 1 percent of men in the general population suffer from iron deficiency. Among all types of athletes, iron depletion occurs in 20 to 50 percent of women and 4 to 50 percent of males, with the worst cases being in athletes who train under high intensity for prolonged periods or do significant weight-bearing exercise. To put this in perspective, if you run, cycle, do CrossFit or weight-train in any combination, you’re likely at risk for iron deficiency. If you’re dieting and limiting your red meat consumption, the problem may be exacerbated.
If you suspect you have an iron deficiency, you should see your doctor to have your blood tested. The easiest way to ensure your iron is topped up is to take a multivitamin (with iron) or an iron supplement as directed. A word of caution: More is not better. Too much iron is toxic and can cause severe health issues, so tread lightly.