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Iron for AthletesIron For Athletes

Did you know…?

Iron is essential for athletic performance because it carries oxygen to every system in your body, including your working muscles.


Even a marginal iron deficiency can impair athletic performance.


Many athletes wonder if they need extra or “mega” vitamin and mineral supplements to support their activity level. And though regular physical activity does increase an athlete’s total calorie needs and his or her need for protein and carbohydrates, most athletes don’t need extra vitamins and minerals. But, two minerals that women athletes often do fall short on are calcium and iron.


According to national data, many women consume far less calcium than the recommended Adequate Intake, and many women fall short on their iron intake. Active, athletic women, in particular, may be more at risk than their sedentary counterparts. In some studies examining iron deficiency in female endurance athletes, more than 1 in 4 women tested positive for iron deficiency.


There is a risk for iron deficiency in:

  • Athletes that don’t eat enough iron-rich food.
    For example, athletes who avoid red meat may have difficulty meeting the body's iron needs
  • Athletes that experience an increased demand for iron, like rapid growth.
    For example, endurance athletes who train at high intensity will have a greater demand for iron as their bodies increase production of red blood cells.
  •  Athletes that experience blood loss (and thus, iron loss.)
    For example, female athletes lose blood through their monthly menstruation. Blood loss may also occur through an injury.


Iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia can make a couch potato feel tired. Add intense physical activity to low iron levels and you’ll find it hard to make it through each day without a nap or two.


The symptoms of iron deficiency include: loss of endurance, chronic fatigue, high exercise heart rate, low power, frequent injury, recurring illness, loss of interest in exercise and irritability. Other symptoms include poor appetite, and increased incidence and duration of colds and infections. Many of these symptoms are also common to over-training, so misdiagnosis is common. The only sure way to diagnose a deficiency is a blood test to determine iron status.


The best sources of iron include meat, poultry and fish, all of which contain heme iron – the most absorbable form. If you hardly touch those foods or are a vegetarian, try cooking in a cast iron skillet and consuming iron fortified cereals, beans, chickpeas, oat bran, spinach and bread.


 If you are an active athlete, you don’t need to buy mega doses of vitamins and minerals to support your activity levels. However, you should pay particular attention to your calcium and iron intake. If you suffer from frequent stress fractures talk to your doctor about getting a bone density exam. Likewise, if you feel sluggish and like your athletic performance has taken a nosedive, talk to your doctor about getting your iron levels checked for both iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia.




  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Intake of Selected Minerals for the United States Population: 1999–2000. Advance Data from Vital Health Statistics. Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services; No. 341, April 27, 2004.
  2. Lauder TD, Dixit S, Pezzin LE, Williams MV, Campbell CS, Davis GD. The relation between stress fractures and bone mineral density: evidence from active-duty Army women. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 2000;81(1):73–79.
  3. Malczewska J, Raczynski G, Stupnicki R. Iron status in female endurance athletes and in non-athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 2000;10(3):260–276.
  4. Risser WL, Lee EJ, Poindexter HB, et al. Iron deficiency in female athletes: its prevalence and impact on performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1988;20(2):116–121.
  5. Brownlie T 4th, Utermohlen V, Hinton PS, Giordano C, Haas JD. Marginal iron deficiency without anemia impairs aerobic adaptation among previously untrained women. Am J Clin Nutr 2002;75(4):734–742.
  6. Hinton PS, Giordano C, Brownlie T, Haas JD. Iron supplementation improves endurance after training in iron-depleted, nonanemic women. J Appl Physiol 2000;88(3):1103–1111.