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Iron deficiency in sport

Typically, with the greater amounts of food that you might be eating to support training, at any level, deficiencies are uncommon. However, iron is a bit of an exception.

There are a lot of reasons for feeling tired or low in energy, and it doesn't always mean you have a deficiency. However sometimes it does, and some of us are more at risk than others. If you:

  • are vegetarian or vegan
  • have heavy periods
  • are peri-menopausal
  • are a runner

 Each situation has its own nuances and considerations, but for the purposes of this post, I'd like to focus on sport because its one that I find is much less understood and expected.

First of all, if your fatigue is out of character, it's worth a visit to your health professional for a chat and possibly a blood test. When you have low iron levels, your body isn't able to make as many red blood cells, and then your haemoglobin will start to fall. Haemoglobin is an important protein, containing iron, that is contained in red blood cells and binds to oxygen to take it to working muscles. So, in a nutshell, low iron means your working muscles are getting less oxygen and that's why you feel tired, and may even feel short of breathe.

Why is this a consideration for athletes at all levels?

Runners actually lose more iron and therefore have higher needs to replace it.

  • Sweating: Sweat is more than just salty water. We also lose iron through sweat, and whilst it may not be a massive amount, over time, combined with other iron losses.
  • Through your feet: No, that's not a typo. As you run and your feet hit the ground, it actually damages red blood cells. This is called foot strike haemolysis.
  • Digestive tract: Strenuous exercise can cause minor damage to the lining of your digestive tract.

 The best way to prevent iron depletion is to make sure that you have a well balanced diet. It doesn't mean you need to eat a truck load of red meat, either. There are lots of other healthy soures of iron:

  • fish, nuts and legumes are great alternatives to meat
  • eat vitamin C rich foods with your plant sources of iron to help you absorb more
  • if you do fancy the odd steak, you can actually use this as an opportunity to absorb more iron from your plant based sources because, like vitamin C, it will help your body to absorb more

As always, if in doubt, get it checked out.


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