I am an elite Ironwoman and I competed in the surf ironwoman series. However, in this article I am talking about a different kind of iron, woman. I am talking about you and the important dietary mineral… iron.
As an athlete I am constantly pushing my body to the limit in training and during competition. I rely on my body to be kept in an optimal condition to be able to perform at my peak and train consistently. Whether you are an elite athlete or exercising to stay healthy, it is easier to exercise when your body is functioning well and you have adequate energy. This is where iron comes in. Iron is vital for various body functions including transporting oxygen in the blood. I have experienced first hand the negative effects low iron can have on your body and training.
The importance of Iron…
Over 30% of the world’s population is deficient in iron. Iron is a part of haemoglobin, which make up your red blood cells. The red blood cell’s role is to transport oxygen around the body from the air you breathe in to the skeletal muscle used for movement. Most exercise requires oxygen to help produce energy for the working muscles. Other functions of iron in the body include:
– enzymes for cell function
– the immune system, which helps fight infection
– myoglobin, which helps store oxygen in the muscles
Why are adequate iron levels important to keeping healthy?
There are different classifications of your iron status that is a measure of the amount of iron your have in your body: low iron, iron deficiency and anemia. Even a slight reduction in your iron levels may cause your cardiovascular system to compensate by increasing your heart rate or breathing to try and get more oxygen delivery to your muscles. This is inefficient and makes your feel tired and results in low exercise tolerance, meaning you can’t exercise for as long or keep the same intensity.
Am I at risk?
- Females who are menstruating have a higher risk of having low iron or anaemia due to iron lost in blood
- Endurance athletes and those who exercise often also have a higher risk due to increased blood volume, which increases iron requirements.
- Vegetarians do too, as they miss out on the iron found in meat
How do I know if I have low iron?
If you are feeling tired often, weak or breathless during training, it could be a sign of low iron and a visit to doctor for a blood test may be worthwhile. A blood test will inform you on your iron status and be able to diagnose low iron, iron deficiency, or anemia.
How do I ensure adequate iron levels?
The recommended dietary intake (RDI) for iron varies for different populations, but for women who are menstruating it is 18mg per day. Those who are anemic or have iron deficiency need to insure they are absorbing enough iron to boost their overall iron levels which may be more than the RDI.
There are two types of iron; haem and non-haem
- Haem iron comes from mainly animal products and is more readily absorbed by the body. Food rich in haem iron include: red meat, seafood, chicken and liver.
- Non-haem iron comes from mainly plant sources including grains, cereals, beans and fruits.
Our bodies only absorb a minor percentage of the iron we consume in our food. Even though we only need to absorb a small amount of iron daily, we need to consume several times that to achieve this. Foods that help absorb iron include those containing vitamin C such as oranges and broccoli. Foods that reduce iron absorption include tannins found in tea and coffee, soy proteins and phytates found in whole grains like bran.
If your iron levels are low or you are not absorbing iron adequately, you may need to take an iron supplement. Iron supplements are most effective when taking on an empty stomach. I have had iron deficiency in the past and I used to feel tired and had poor recovery as a result. Since changing my diet and taking iron supplements I am back into the normal range and feel the difference in my training. My iron supplement of choice is ‘Spatone’, which is in a liquid form that I drink with orange juice because vitamin C helps the absorption or iron!