Supplements ~ Iron

Many athletes have been found to be iron deficient which is a shame, because iron is a key component in the formation of red blood cells.   And as you all know by now, red blood cells are the ones that carry the oxygen to your hard working muscles.  Fewer red blood cells equals lower performance. 

A quick way to increase red blood cell count (hematocrit) is EPO; but that's not good.  A safer, and legal way, is to train hard, have a better nutritional diet and consider the use of supplements like iron.  With everyone cutting back on their red meat, and in a hectic world where breakfast is the first sacrifice, we miss out on valuable sources of iron that could help our performance. 

What is is it?
According to the study, excess iron can cause side effects including fatigue and nauseaIron is a trace element, which means there isn't a lot of it.  However the little that is there has a performance impact that far outweighs it's small presence.  That's why it's considered a macro-nutrient.  Iron is a mineral and is one of the more difficult elements for our body to absorb.  It need other vitamins and minerals to help it get into our body.  More of that later.

What does it do?
Iron is known to be:

an essential constituent of haemoglobin
found in myoglobin (oxygen carrier in muscles)
in the enzymes that form the pathways for mitochondria
part of the performance oxygen transportation system
lost as a result of hard training
depleted in those on a restricted calorie intake

What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?
This is a difficult one!  Iron deficiency, and iron anaemia, give symptoms similar to those we cyclists feel every day.  An otherwise healthy person can show signs of tiredness, listlessness, shortness of breath, dizziness, loss of performance and a reduced capacity of aerobic activity.  You can feel most of these just being a racing cyclist.

In long term cases of iron deficiency there can also be signs of lip sores and a splitting in the corner of the mouth, ridges in the length of the fingernails, an insatiable craving for specific foods, angina, headache and leg pains.  Again, all of the things we cyclists take as the price we pay for enjoying our sport.

How can it help me?
Athletes in hard, specific training have shown a 15% increase in red cell mass over control groups.  Which has a concomitant increase in our body's need for iron.  Through increased training, and a neglect to increase our dietary intake to support that training, we often set ourselves up to fail and begin a downward spiral in to under performance syndrome.

Hematocrit is also affected by the suspension of training.  When we cut back our training the body continues to produce red blood cells (part of the adaptation process) which gives another rise in hematocrit.  That's why we plan a recovery week before a key objective event.

A lack of dietary iron is the world's leading nutritional deficiency.  It can be seen from the above statements that cyclists training hard may have a greater need for iron supplementation than their sedentary counterparts.

What is the dosage required?

7-17 mg a day for endurance athletes
16-23 mg a day for menstruating females

Iron can be found in red meat, organ meat (liver & offal), shell fish, wholegrain bread, pasta, fortified cereals and green leafy vegetables.

There are two types of iron, heme and non-heme.  Heme is found in animal products where the iron is found in haemoglobin and is more readily available to the body. 

Non-heme is mainly of plant origin.  Also found in fortified foods, it isn't so readily absorbed during digestion.  Which is why less well informed vegetarians are often found to be iron deficient.

What should I be aware of?
As we said earlier iron is one of the hardest minerals for the body to to absorb.  To be effectively absorbed we should ensure an adequate intake of vitamin C.  That's why it's always good to have a glass of orange juice with your morning cereal.

If you back right off from your training, you may well have less need for iron supplementation.  If you take more iron than your body needs, or can absorb, there is a higher possibility of having constipation and stomach discomfort.  Too much iron also has an adverse affect on zinc absorption which will have a negative impact on your immuno-suppression system.  Every action has a consequence.

One in 250 individuals, of  northern European descent, suffer from hemochromatosis.  Individuals suffering from this genetic disease have a propensity to process iron more efficiently than most.  This means they get more iron than most from every meal.  Supplementation could push them over the safe toxicity levels.  The risk factor isn't high, but it's there all the same.  Our usual proviso's and recommendations are relevant.

Take Note:
This article is neither an endorsement or a condemnation of the subject of this article or any other supplement use.  It is here to allow the reader to draw their own informed conclusion. 

Do your research and if any doubt consult a physician before undertaking any supplement regimen.  Never take more than the stated dose and never mix any drug or supplement with alcohol.  Always check that you are not contravening any sporting code, ethics or permitted levels for your sport before undertaking any supplementation.

Where can I get some?
Any Boots, High Street pharmacy or vitamin shop.