Iron-Powered Performance: A Guide for Endurance Athletes

Alex Auld


April 26, 2023

Endurance athletes are no strangers to the rigorous demands placed on their bodies during training and competition. One crucial element that can influence athletic performance is iron intake. 

In this blog we’ll explore the importance of iron in red blood cell production, highlight the risks of low intake, and provide recommended dosages and dietary sources to help you maximize your endurance efforts. 

Red Blood Cells and Endurance Performance

Red blood cells are the primary carriers of oxygen in the body. They transport oxygen from the lungs to the muscles and other tissues, providing the fuel needed to sustain muscle contractions through aerobic metabolism during exercise. 

In endurance sports, an athlete's ability to sustain high levels of performance relies heavily on their capacity to deliver oxygen to working muscles. Therefore, having an adequate supply of red blood cells is crucial for maintaining peak performance.

Iron & Red Blood Cell Production

Iron plays a central role in red blood cell production. It is a vital component of hemoglobin, the protein responsible for binding oxygen to red blood cells. 

Without sufficient iron, the body cannot produce enough red blood cells or hemoglobin, leading to decreased oxygen-carrying capacity and a decline in exercise performance. In endurance athletes, this can result in reduced stamina, slower recovery times, and increased susceptibility to fatigue.

Low iron intake can also lead to iron deficiency anemia, which is characterized by a reduced number of red blood cells and diminished oxygen-carrying capacity. This can severely impact endurance athletes, leading to symptoms such as weakness, shortness of breath, dizziness, and increased susceptibility to illness or infection. 

Optimizing Your Iron Intake

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of iron for adult men is 8 mg, while adult women require 18 mg. Pregnant women are recommended to consume 27 mg daily. 

Iron-rich dietary sources include:

  1. Red meat (beef, lamb, pork) 
  2. Poultry (chicken, turkey)
  3. Shellfish (clams, oysters)
  4. Legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans)
  5. Tofu and tempeh
  6. Spinach and other dark leafy greens
  7. Fortified cereals and grains
  8. Nuts and seeds (pumpkin seeds, almonds, cashews)

It is crucial to consult with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian to determine individual iron requirements and the potential need for supplementation.

The Role of Vitamin C

Vitamin C plays a crucial role in enhancing iron absorption from plant-based food sources. Specifically, vitamin C aids in converting non-heme iron (found in plant foods) into a more soluble and easily absorbed form. This conversion happens by changing ferric iron (Fe3+) into ferrous iron (Fe2+), which makes iron more easily absorbed by the body.

Alongside the iron-rich foods listed above, endurance athletes should consider consuming vitamin C-rich foods, such as citrus fruits, bell peppers, and strawberries in order to optimize iron absorption.

Understanding Your Personal Iron Need

In conclusion, iron is an essential nutrient for endurance athletes, as it plays a crucial role in red blood cell production and oxygen transport. Ensuring adequate iron intake through a balanced diet, and potentially through supplementation, is vital for maximizing performance and maintaining overall health. 

By paying attention to iron consumption and incorporating vitamin C-rich foods for enhanced absorption, endurance athletes can set the foundation for success in their training and competition.

Want to know if you have an increased need to boost your iron intake based on your DNA? Your Red Blood Cell Production & Endurance Performance report will identify if you carry variants of the NFIA-AS2 gene associated with ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ red blood cell production and provide recommendations to help you optimize your levels. 

Unlock your personal result, alongside 145+ additional health and fitness reports, with a FitnessGenes DNA analysis test.

Alex Auld

One of FitnessGenes' first full-time employees, Alex re-joined the company in 2021 after completing his MA in Global Communications at the University of London. He now oversees all customer communications, helping to ensure that our members get the most from their results. An amateur triathlete, you can expect to find him in the pool, on the bike, or running laps of his local park most weekends.

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