Iron is an essential nutrient in the body as it is a key component of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood. Without adequate iron, cells and muscles don’t get the oxygen they need, resulting in fatigue and low energy.  For an athlete, a low hemoglobin level can ruin their season. It can take months to raise hemoglobin levels.

Who tends to get low?

  • Endurance athletes such as cross country runners and swimmers due to hematuria, GI bleeding, and iron excretion through sweating.
  • Vegans and vegetarians due to low dietary intake
  • Women due to loss of blood through menstruation.

What does a low iron level feel like?

  • Working really hard but times are getting slower
  • Sluggishness
  • Constantly tired or exhausted
  • Cold
  • Look pale
  • Hard to breathe (extreme cases)

Iron RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance)

  • Men: 8 mg per day
  • Women (pre-menopausal): 18 mg per day
  • Vegetarian men and endurance athletes: 14 mg per day
  • Vegetarian women and endurance athletes: 33 mg per day

Two Forms of Iron

  • Heme iron: More easily absorbed form of iron. Primarily found in meat.
  • Non-heme iron: Less readily absorbed form of iron. Mainly found in fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and nuts. Vitamin C can increase the absorption of non-heme iron by up to 6 times, so combine it with a vitamin C food at meals.

Norse Training Tips

  • Take your iron supplement with a high vitamin C source, such as 4 oz of orange juice in the morning and again before going to bed at night.
  • Keep in mind that calcium and tannins (found in tea and coffee) reduce iron absorption so they should be spaced several hours from a meal.

Top Food Sources of Iron

Food Amount Iron (mg)
Blackstrap molasses 2 Tbsp 7.2
Quinoa (cooked) 1 cup 6.3
Beef liver 3 oz 6.0
Tofu 4 oz 6.0
Oatmeal (Fortified and cooked) 1 cup 5.8
Tempeh 1 cup 4.8
Lentils (cooked) 1/2 cup 3.3
Hamburger 3 oz 2.3
Soybeans (cooked) 1/4 cup 2.2
Sirloin Steak 3 oz 2.0
Dried Peaches 1/4 cup 1.6
Beef Jerky 1 oz 1.5
Raisins 1/4 cup 1.0
Chicken Breast 3 oz 0.88
Dried Beef 1 oz 0.73
Turkey Deli Meat 1 slice 0.28
Chickpeas 2 Tbsp 0.44

Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference 

Cafeteria Combos (High Iron and Vitamin C Foods)

  • Eggs (with yolks) and orange juice
  • Beef Chili
  • Broccoli stir-fry with tofu

Supplemental Iron Sources

  • Ferrous sulfate
  • Ferrous glutamate
  • Slow release iron
  • Ferrous gluconate (liquid iron- best tolerated but stains teeth)