Iron Intake For Athletes

October 26, 2016

Why iron is important for athletes:

Iron is used in red blood cells to carry the oxygen in your body. Low levels of iron can lead to anemia, which can have a devastating effect on your body, especially for an athlete.


  • You lose a significant amount of iron when exercising in hot climate (through sweat).
  • Mechanical sports such as foot-running will create trauma to your muscles and lead to hemolysis, also known as a destruction of red blood cells.
  • Growing muscle mass increases the need for higher iron intake because the athlete is increasing their amount of blood plasma.

Who is more at risk?

  • Long endurance runners
  • Women between 19-50 years old
  • Vegetarians
  • Athletes eating high carbohydrate diets

Failure to consume regular meals and eating a lot of processed snacks can also be risky, since iron is generally not present in those items.

If you think you are at risk, assess your iron status by having a blood test done by your physician every 6 months.

How can we increase our consumption to prevent anemia?

All food groups can contain iron sources and it is wise to follow healthy guidelines such as these to ensure the right consumption:

  • 1/3 of the plate filled with carbohydrates
  • 1/3 of the plate filled with protein
  • 1/3 of the plate of fruits and vegetables with emphasis on dark orange and dark green items

Need more help with proportions? 

Animal derived sources also known as heme-iron are better absorbed than plant-based sources (non-heme iron). Liver, poultry, red meat and fish are the best sources of heme-iron and your body will absorbs about 15% of the iron content compared to 5% from a plant-based rich source such as spinach and dried fruits.

Vitamin C found in bright coloured fruits and veggies has a super power to increase the absorption of iron. So make sure to consume them both together! Iron also have enemies such as chocolate, tea and coffee because they contain tannins that decrease the absorption.

A handy tool. 

How much do I need per day?

  • Women need 18 mg
  • Men need 8 mg
  • Long distance runners' needs are increased by 70%
  • Supplementation with pills is not necessary if you are not anemic, but prevention is important.


Marina Parent

Dietitian-nutritionist, dtp.



Additional Reference

AIS Sports Nutrition. (2009, November 01). Iron-are you getting enough? 

Extenso. (2016, June 12). Athlètes : plus à risque de carence en fer? 

Photo Credit: Freepik


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