You may have already heard that iron is important for being healthy and fit. But why a sufficient supply of this trace element is so essential for athletes, what causes iron deficiency and what you can do about it, you can find out here.


What is iron and what does your body need it for?

Iron is a trace element that serves as a building block of red blood cells and thus the oxygen supply of the body. It is called an "essential" trace element, which means that the body cannot produce it itself, but it is vital for the organism. In the red blood cells, iron ensures that the oxygen we take in through breathing can be bound and thus transported to our body cells by the fastest route.

Iron is particularly important for the oxygen supply to our muscles: there it is bound by the red muscle pigment myoglobin and thus supplies the muscle with oxygen. In addition, iron is responsible for various other metabolic functions, the production of messenger substances and signal transmission between nerve cells.

How do you recognize iron deficiency in sports?

Iron deficiency is relatively widespread. The typical signs of iron deficiency or so-called "iron deficiency anemia" are fatigue, listlessness, brittle nails and hair loss. In sports, of course, deficiency symptoms are also reflected, and so you should pay attention to the following symptoms: 

  • Lack of progress: iron deficiency is often manifested by a drop in performance, despite consistent or even more intense training. You don't manage to improve further. 
  • Reduced performance in endurance training: Running or endurance times become worse.
  • Shortness of breath, rapid fatigue: Sports loads that the body used to handle without problems lead to palpitations and breathlessness.


What are the causes of iron deficiency?

An iron deficiency can have 2 underlying causes:

An insufficient intake of iron through food: a form of iron that is very easily utilized by the body is found primarily in meat and animal products. For this reason, it can be difficult for vegetarians and vegans to get enough iron from their diet. 

Too much iron is used up by th body, which is particularly common among athletes (so-called athlete's anemia). Through sweat and urine you lose a lot of iron, which you have to absorb again afterwards. A marathon runner, for example, can lose up to two and a half milligrams of iron per liter of sweat and thus suffer from iron deficiency despite sufficient intake.

How much iron should you consume?

Women generally have a higher iron consumption and therefore more frequent iron deficiency than men. For men, for example, a daily iron intake of 10mg through the diet is recommended, whereas for women it is between 10mg and 15mg. Pregnancy or heavy blood loss, for example as a result of accidents, operations or cycle-related bleeding, increase the daily requirement. For athletes, the recommendation for daily iron intake is also 1mg higher than for people who do not participate in sports. 

What to do against iron deficiency?

Especially with intensive endurance sports and as an athlete, a conscious diet is important to meet the increased daily iron requirement. Since only about 5-10% of the ingested iron can be effectively absorbed and utilized through the intestines, you need to consume significantly more.

The best source of iron is red meat. A 150g steak alone provides 3.2mg of the vital trace element. Offal such as liver or kidneys contain even more, up to 17mg per 100g. 

It is somewhat more difficult to absorb iron from plant foods, as these can be utilized by the body 3 times more poorly than from animal foods. To improve the absorption, plant-based iron sources should definitely be consumed in combination with vitamin C. Coffee, red wine and black tea, on the other hand, further inhibit the absorption of iron. The following plant foods are high in iron and should be incorporated into your diet:

  • Oatmeal (5.4 mg per 100 g)
  • Kale (1.9 mg iron per 100 g)
  • Swiss chard (2.7 mg per 100 g)
  • Quinoa (8 mg per 100g raw weight)
  • Whole grain pasta (3.9 mg per 100 g raw weight)
  • Spinach (3.4 mg per 100 g)
  • Legumes 7 to 8g per serving of 100g raw weight/ side dish).