Iron deficiency is the most common deficiency for athletes, and is something you need to be particularly careful with if you are a female endurance athlete, or a runner. Distance runners are thought to have an 70% greater need for iron. High-impact exercise (especially the foot striking the ground in running), ruptures red blood cells. Iron is also lost during intense endurance activity through sweating. Female athletes have greater iron loss due to menstruation.ff
There is a condition called “sports anaemia”, which occurs when athletes begin aerobic training programs. This is a natural body-adaptation to aerobic training and shouldn’t be confused with true iron deficiency. In sports anaemia, the athlete’s blood volume increases, resulting in a dilution of red blood cells. In blood tests, this can show up as reduced serum ferritin and haemoglobin (and remember that vegan’s often have lower serum ferritin anyway without it being an issue).
If you are an athlete and you have genuine iron-deficiency anaemia, supplementation can get your levels back to where they need to be fairly quickly while you work on adjusting your diet to compensate for your higher iron needs. Beside the obvious health concerns re low iron, iron-deficiency can compromise your athletic performance.
Once you have your levels restored, it’s a good idea to rely on iron from your diet if possible, to reduce the risk of iron-overload. If you do decide to take a regular iron supplement, please have your levels checked regularly to ensure you aren’t over-dosing, and read up on the literature linking low serum ferritin levels with reduced inflammation and lower incidence of chronic disease so you can make informed decisions and weigh the pros with the cons. I also recommend regularly changing the supplement you are using. This protects you from excessive overuse of iron in a specific form, and allows your body a rest from repeated exposure to the ingredients used in any one supplement.
Legumes are a brilliant iron source for athletes. They provide 3-6mg of iron per cup of beans or lentils, or per 1/2 of soybeans or tofu. An iron-rich day might include meals like this:
*Muesli or chia seed porridge with pumpkin seeds and dried fruit with a drizzle organic blackstrap molasses on top for breakfast or as a dessert.
*A salad containing kale, sun-dried tomato, avocado, a sprinkle of kelp, olives, radishes, and raw peas alongside some baked potato and sweet potato and pumpkin. Add slices of marinated fried tofu to the salad for extra iron, or put some humous on the baked potato as a topping.
*Spinach, split pea and lentil soup.
*Snacking on almonds and cashews or using almond/cashew/tahini/sunflower seed spread on multigrain toast/bread.
*A smoothie containing hemp seeds.
*Dark chocolate as a treat or for dessert. The darker the chocolate, the higher the iron content.