Finding the IRONwoman within

A friend once had an issue with hair loss. She was losing that much hair that eventually she had to cut her long, once luscious hair, short in order to maintain hair-health. Just prior to the hair loss she had also decided to go on a health kick; she started doing a lot of strenuous exercise (90min spin classes in the morning followed by intense gym sessions in the evening, seven days per week), while cutting back on her total calorie intake in a bid to shed those unwanted kilo’s. Eventually, hair loss wasn’t her only problem. She became tired and weak, her performance decreased (she was underperforming in the gym and also at work); she was always cold and noticed she was getting sick more often than usual. Realising something was up she decided to see her local GP to have some blood tests done and sure enough it was discovered that she was deficient in iron.

When it comes to eating for health, well-being, and athletic performance, we are often guilty of making things a whole lot more complicated than they actually need to be.

We all know that good nutrition is essential to athletic success by improving the quality of training, maximising performance and enhancing recovery between sessions1. In triathlon nutrition really is the fourth discipline. But have you noticed that it’s often the fad diets (such as the recently made popular Paleo Diet) that seem to get all the attention, whereas the simplest things, the basic nutritional concepts, are often overlooked?

We’re often told what to eat in order to achieve athletic success. But unless we understand why we need to eat certain things and apply the basic concepts of nutrition, we will struggle to achieve our athletic potential in the gruelling world of triathlon. This is true for both professional and amateur athletes.

For women, one nutritional concept that demands more attention is iron. Are we getting enough iron in our daily diets? And what are the consequences if we’re not?

What is iron?

Iron has a number of key functions2. It helps to transport oxygen around the body and aids in the release of energy from cells. Iron is required for the production of red blood cells and it helps maintain a healthy immune system.

Because it has so many key functions, iron is very important when it comes to athletic performance. Without adequate iron levels, muscle function is impaired and the body’s capacity for physical activity is limited3 – not the ideal situation if you’re planning on kicking goals in the world of triathlon.

Unfortunately, the human body is unable to manufacture its own iron. As such, the only way our body can source the iron it needs is through the food we eat.

Iron in food

Food sources of iron can be divided in to two groups; haem sources and non-haem sources of iron.

Haem iron comes from haemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to cells4. Haem iron, therefore, is only found in animal products that originally contained haemoglobin, such as red meat, chicken and fish. On the other hand, non-haem iron comes from food sources that did not originally contain haemoglobin, such as plant foods. These include cereals, vegetables, nuts, lentils and beans. Of the two iron sources, haem iron is more readily absorbed by our body

But if you’re a vegetarian, or someone who doesn’t eat a lot of red meat, don’t despair. One way to enhance the absorption of iron is to include Vitamin C rich foods at each meal (there’s a reason why they often serve spinach with a steak at your local restaurant!). You could try including fruit or fruit juice with breakfast, capsicum in the stir-fry at dinner, add a side serve of spinach with your steak or include salad vegetables in a sandwich followed by a piece of fruit at lunch.

However, it’s important to be aware there are things that will inhibit the absorption of iron, such as tea and coffee. So, if you’re in the habit of having a coffee with your cereal at breakfast, it might be a better idea to leave the caffeine until you get to work and have a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice instead. This will ensure maximum iron absorption from the cereal you have just eaten. It’s also best to avoid having tea or coffee with meals – save these for the morning and/or afternoon tea break.

So how much iron do we need?

Generally speaking, athletes are at an increased risk of iron depletion compared to non-athletes.

The Australian Institute of Sport states that athletes have higher iron requirements2. This is often as a result of athletes having a higher blood volume, which creates a higher iron need. Athletes also have increased iron losses through sweat and as a result of any gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding (GI bleeding can occur during strenuous activity, which can cause minor damage to the lining of the stomach and the intestinal wall and through the use of anti-inflammatory drugs) and mechanical trauma (studies have shown that endurance runners often show iron depletion due to foot strike haemolysis; iron is broken down and lost each time you pound the pavement).

Additionally, athletes often restrict their food intake to achieve a ‘goal weight’, which can lead to an inadequate intake of foods containing iron.

And female athletes have the additional challenge of iron loss via a monthly menstrual cycle. This blood shedding will also result in a significant iron loss from a female’s body.

To ensure you are getting enough iron try to consume a 100-120gr serve of lean red meat 3-4 times per week, choose breakfast cereals that have added iron and make sure you add other food sources that are rich in iron into your diet, such as legumes. Try to remember to include a Vitamin C food source at each meal and leave the tea and coffee for snack time.

What about iron supplements?

An iron supplement is one option to correct a diagnosed deficiency.

Sometimes, feeling more tired and run down then normal can be a sign of an iron deficiency. It is essential that you see your GP if you notice a change in your energy levels before taking any form of supplement. Your GP will be able to test whether iron levels are to blame or if there’s some other explanation for your symptoms, such as reduced immune function.

Another thing to remember is iron can become toxic if taken to excess5. Excessive iron supplementation can cause GI distress, constipation and (worst case scenario) it can lead to toxicity. If your GP determines that an iron supplement is appropriate for you, then your dose should also be monitored.

So, the bottom line…..

In the world of triathlon, nutrition really is the fourth discipline. For optimum performance focus on the basic principles of nutrition and not the diet fads that will come and go.

By taking a sensible approach to your nutrition, you will find the iron-woman within.



1 Martin, Lambeth, Scott, ‘Nutritional Practices of National Female Soccer Players: Analysis and Recommendations’, (C) Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2006) 5, 130-137

2‘Iron – are you getting enough? : Australian Institute of Sport.….28/02/2012

3‘Nutrition and Athletic Performance’, Joint Position Statement, Copyright (C) 2009 by the American College of Sports Medicine,  American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada.

4 NIH Office of Dietary Supplements Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Iron accessed 28/02/12

5 Palacio et al ‘Nutrition for the Female Athlete’ Accessed 24/02/12.