Iron And Sporting Performance In Female Athletes

Sports Nutritionist Female Athletes

Iron is a very important mineral that helps build red blood cells which carry oxygen to the muscles and help in energy production. A good iron status in the body can help in improving an athlete’s overall health and thereby the sporting performance. A sports nutritionist can help the athlete achieve a good iron status.
Iron is of two types, heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron is readily absorbed and found in animal sources like poultry, fish, eggs, shrimps, etc while non-heme iron is found in plant sources such as whole grains, lentils, spinach, beans, etc. Unlike the heme iron, the non heme iron has a lower absorption rate. 70 percent of the body’s iron is found in the red blood cells (hemoglobin) and in the muscle cells (myoglobin).
Some components in food interfere with or enhance iron absorption when eaten together in the same meal. Vitamin C is known to enhance iron absorption. Phytates from cereals and pulses, calcium from milk and other dairy products and the polyphenols from tea and coffee are known to interfere with the absorption of iron in the body.


Athletes have a higher iron requirement that non athletes. Among the athletes, women athletes have a higher need. Iron plays an important role in metabolism of energy. It is a critical component of hemoglobin. Athletes have to perform to their optimum levels. They undergo strenuous training involving all the muscles in their body. All the body tissues require oxygen which is transported by hemoglobin, making it crucial for athletes to have adequate iron in their body.


Extreme fatigue and reduced training capacity are the first signs of iron depletion. Low iron level results in less oxygen transported to the muscles, the maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max) falls and physical performance is affected. Too little iron may weaken the immunity and also other physiological functions. If untreated, iron depletion even in the early stages can quickly develop into iron deficiency anemia. Anemia can make an athlete feel very lethargic and incapable of any effort in training. This condition can take months to recover and make it very difficult for an athlete to return to full training capacity.


A variety of reasons can explain why female athletes are at a greater risk of developing a compromised iron status which can lead to iron deficiency or low levels of iron. Some are:

1. Hard physical training stimulates an increase in the number of red blood cells increasing the demand for iron.
2. Growth increases iron requirements in adolescent female athletes because of the corresponding increase in red blood cells and blood vessels.
3. Insufficient intake of iron-rich foods
4. Loss of iron through blood due to injury or menstruation which increases requirement in females
5. Increased depletion of iron stores due to sweating and exercise induced acute inflammation

According to a research in Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition iron deficiency in female athletes as a result of intense training programs and competition has received a lot attention over the last few decades. This is due to notably high prevalence of latent iron deficiency seen in female athletes which in some cases is reported to be more than twice the level reported in their sedentary counterparts.


Female athletes can be prevented from developing anemia if their iron levels are checked at regular intervals. Improving the diet and including foods rich in iron will help improve their iron stores in the long run. Following nutrition tips can help maintain optimum iron stores:

1. Eat foods rich in iron and mostly heme iron food sources (lean meat regularly, eggs, red meat occasionally) as they are more easily absorbed in comparison to non-heme iron
2. If vegetarian, make iron rich choices like beans, dals, green leafy vegetables, nuts and dried fruits and iron fortified foods like breakfast cereals. Incorporate vitamin C rich foods like citrus fruits, kiwi fruit, strawberries, bell pepper, etc to help the absorption of iron.
3. Try not to take calcium and iron at the same time as body absorbs these nutrients better when taken separately. When taken together iron absorption is hindered.
4. Avoid caffeine (for example soda, black tea, or coffee) with iron rich foods. Caffeine, as well as tannins found naturally in both coffee and tea, can interfere with iron absorption.

Elite female athletes involved in regular intensive training programs should focus on their iron intake through food. Should you take a supplement? If you are tired and feeling unenergetic constantly along with hard training it is always wise to have your iron status assessed by your doctor and then take the supplement if prescribed. If iron levels are normal, there is little evidence to suggest that the aerobic capacity is improved with a supplement. The athlete should remember that excess iron is associated with health problems. Alternatively, a qualified sports nutritionist can assist in planning a nutritionally balanced meal. If for any reason an overweight athlete who is on a weight loss program has a weight loss plan, ensure that the plan is a balanced one where the iron needs are taken care of.