Competitive athletes need to access every ounce of energy they have available. Heavy training combined with work and life’s stresses can make it difficult to keep on track with a strict diet and intense workouts. Although most would contribute 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 is critical for maximal athletic performance due to its role in energy production, oxygen delivery, and acid-base balance. Iron is central molecule to hemoglobin in red blood cells—- the cells that carry oxygen in the blood to active tissues. Many studies illustrate that iron deficiency limits exercise performance and may, thereby, hamper your gains.
Overall, females tend to have more cases of iron deficiency than men due to increased iron losses in menstrual blood flow and lower dietary iron intake. However, athletes on strict diets tend to take in less iron than the general population and lose more iron by way of exercise-associated iron loss from sweating, urinating, and reduced iron recycling.
A recent review published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism reports that as many as 13% of women and 1% of men in the general population suffer from iron deficiency. However, among all types of athletes, iron depletion occurs in approximately 20 to 50% of females and approximately 4 to50% males— with the worst cases being in athletes who train under high intensity, for prolonged periods, or during weight-bearing exercise. To put this in perspective, if you run, cycle, cross-fit, or weight train in any combination, then you are likely at risk for iron deficiency. If you are dieting and limit your red meat consumption, then 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— iron is fat-soluble and builds up in the body over time. Too much iron is toxic and can cause severe health issues.