Home > Feature

Why iron deficiency isn’t just a female issue

The prevalence of iron deficiency in endurance athletes is more than you may think: endurance athletes are 70% more likely than the sedentary population to be diagnosed with iron deficiency.

Endurance athletes have an increased risk of iron deficiency.

Females have a higher risk of becoming iron deficient due to blood loss during menstruation. However, athletes, especially endurance athletes, can get into the situation where they become deficient in iron – a mineral that is vital for overall health and performance.

Iron deficiency and overtraining share many symptoms – fatigue, weakness, muscle aches, headaches, shortness of breath, inflammation and a drop-in performance. This makes a self-diagnosis difficult and is why it is always best to have your doctor come to a conclusion with the necessary tests.

Antoine Desroches, an elite long course triathlete, struggled to differentiate overtraining from iron deficiency. “Early on in my career, I was overtrained, or I was showing symptoms of overtraining,” says Desroches. “I was tired and getting sick often. Despite all the training, I wasn’t ‘healthy.’ I later discovered, with a blood test, I was deficient in iron.”

Antoine Desroches. Photo: Talbot Cox.

Iron is responsible for energy metabolism, acid-base balance and oxygen transport, which is particularly useful in an endurance sport like triathlon. Iron is present in a protein called hemoglobin – found in our red blood cells (RBC). RBCs are responsible for carrying oxygen to our muscles and organs so they can function. For oxygen to be taken up by our RBCs, it needs iron molecules to be present.

Unfortunately, iron is not produced by our bodies. Therefore, we must meet our needs through our diet. The best source of iron comes from animal meats such as red meat, chicken, duck, pork, turkey and fish. Plant-based foods with high iron levels include, green veggies (spinach and broccoli), lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, grains and dried fruit. Any excess iron is stored in our livers.

Food sources of iron.

Athletes are at higher risk for iron deficiency because iron is lost through sweat, urine, the GI tract and menstruation, and RBCs become damaged with training. Combined with high-intensity and long training sessions, endurance athletes are 70 per cent more likely than the sedentary population to be diagnosed with iron deficiency. Due to the repeated stress of training, RBCs are broken down quicker. This is the primary reason why athletes are at a greater risk for iron deficiency.

Like our muscles, our RBCs need time to recover and recuperate, and why it is so important to closely monitor and structure our training – allowing for proper loading and recovery.

For many athletes, supplementation is a way to meet their nutritional needs. “Taking vitamins and minerals, should only be viewed as a way to supplement your diet,” says Nancy Clark, a sports nutrition counsellor and author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. So, if you are experiencing symptoms of overtraining or are not your usual self, it is a good idea to get some blood work done, because more often than not, a test will reveal deficiencies of some kind.