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Iron is an essential mineral for both health and athletic performance. High performance athletes, because of their heavy training schedule, can rapidly decrease their body’s iron stores.  Iron deficiency, if left undiagnosed, can leave your body tired, flat and unable to train. Canadian Olympic athlete Paula Findlay experienced this first hand when she was diagnosed with anemia after her performance at the London Games.

How does your body lose iron?

Iron loss occurs through the depletion of essential body fluids, for example sweat or blood. All athletes will experience iron loss to some degree while training, but when levels are dramatically reduced (anemia), it can have a serious impact on your body.

Why are athletes at greater risk?

Athletes are more sensitive to the effects of iron deficiency because they depend on the body’s ability to transport oxygen to the muscles. Anemia occurs when there isn’t enough hemoglobin (an iron-protein compound in red blood cells that transports oxygen) in the blood and there are too few red blood cells. Iron, as part of the protein hemoglobin, carries oxygen throughout the body, which is especially essential for endurance athletes.

How do you treat it?

Iron deficiency, or anemia is easy to detect and simple to treat by changing your diet or taking iron supplements.  If left untreated, it can lead to extreme fatigue, rapid heart beat, difficulty concentrating, dizziness, leg cramps and insomnia.

How do you prevent iron deficiency?

For starters, if you are not iron deficient taking an iron supplement is not necessary and will not provide any benefit. Good sources of iron include: meats, fish, poultry (liver and kidney is particularly high), green leafy vegetables, legumes, herbs and nuts. Vegetarian athletes need to be extra vigilant to ensure they meet their nutritional needs.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, please see your doctor or sports dietician for testing before adding any iron supplements to your diet.

References from the SIRC Collection: 

1. KURIEL V. IRON DEFICIENCY. Australian Triathlete. May 2013;20(6):56-58.
2.Malczewska J, Raczynski G, Stupnicki R. Iron status in female endurance athletes and in non-athletes. / Bilan biologique des niveaux du fer chez des athletes d’endurance feminines et chez des femmes non sportives. International Journal Of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism. September 2000;10(3):260-276. 
3. Peeling P, Dawson B, Goodman C, Landers G, Trinder D. Athletic induced iron deficiency: new insights into the role of inflammation, cytokines and hormones. European Journal Of Applied Physiology. July 2008;103(4):381-391. 
4. Ryan M. Preventing and Treating Iron Deficiency in Athletes. Athletic Therapy Today. March 2004;9(2):56-57.
5. Sandström G, Börjesson M, Rödjer S. Iron Deficiency in Adolescent Female Athletes–Is Iron Status Affected by Regular Sporting Activity?. Clinical Journal Of Sport Medicine. November 2012;22(6):495-500. 
6. Seebohar B. Iron Deficiency Anemia and Performance. Olympic Coach. Winter2009 2009;21(1):16.

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.