Should Athletes Take Iron Supplements?

Are iron supplements a good idea for athletes? Athletes who have iron deficiency anemia (IDA) may certainly benefit from iron pills, as would any other person with IDA, as prescribed by their doctor or health care professional. But some believe iron supplements will improve physical performance, stamina, and recovery for endurance athletes such as long-distance runners, cyclists, bodybuilders or swimmers whether they are anemic or not.

IDA is likely to affect exercise performance. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), athletes who exercise on a regular basis—may need significantly more iron than the average individual. Some health experts say that athletes require as much as 30% more iron than the typical person.” However, IDA doesn’t occur in athletes at any higher rate than it does in most people. For women athletes, similar to all women, iron levels can test lower than men’s. This does not necessarily mean they are anemic, but rather that women lose more iron normally than men.

Endurance Athletes and Iron Loss

Endurance athletes, e.g., bikers, swimmers, runners, etc., can have iron deficiency as a result of their regular training routine. Long-distance runners lose more iron than other endurance athletes because the repetitive impact contributes to muscle loss and the destruction of red blood cells. This is one of the possible causes of iron deficiency and/or IDA. An important aspect of training for marathon runners and other endurance athletes is rebuilding muscle through diet and training.

Another contributor to potential iron loss in endurance runners can be a lack of iron in the diet. Because runners carbo-load leading up to a race, they can neglect their iron intake in the process. This does not mean these athletes need or should take iron supplements, beyond the iron in multivitamins they may already be taking. Track and field coaches suggest that endurance runners get their iron levels tested twice a year while actively training. Even if your iron levels are a bit low, it is easy to replenish with a good multivitamin and a diet that consists of lean meat—especially lean red meat—fish, or poultry three times a week. If an athlete enjoys a good lean sirloin steak, they’re in luck, as it is probably the most significant way to take and absorb iron by diet.

Iron-rich Diets and Iron Supplements for Endurance Athletes

Women athletes and vegetarians are both at higher risk of iron deficiency anemia. Women athletes may be prescribed an iron supplement by their doctors, if their tested iron levels are significantly low. Vegetarians often need 2x as much iron intake as meat-eaters, but can still boost dietary iron by consuming nuts, seeds, leafy greens such as kale and spinach, dried fruit, and iron fortified cereals and breads, which might also help with carbo-loading.

Athletes, just like anyone else, can suffer from IDA, though an athlete may also have low levels of iron without anemia. There are lots of rumors that athletes, particularly endurance athletes such as long-distance runners, should boost their iron levels with supplements. But athletes should never take an iron supplement unless their iron levels have been tested and iron has been prescribed by a doctor or health care professional. Excessive iron does not help athletic performance; in fact, it could actually be dangerous to overall health.

If an athlete feels excessive fatigue, dizziness, has a slow recovery time (seven or more days) from training, or other symptoms then they should consider getting their iron levels checked. Based on results, their doctor will determine if an iron supplement is needed.