CYCLISTS & IRON: A Powerful (ly Misunderstood) Combination


by Gus Grissom
Presented by Grape-Nuts
Iron is one of the most abundant metals on Earth. But with so many of today’s bicycles, both competitive and recreational, being made of more exotic materials such as carbon fiber and titanium, there is still a very misunderstood, but important, correlation between iron and a cyclist’s ability to perform up to his or her maximum potential. No matter how much money one puts into the latest equipment and coaching methods, no matter how much time one spends doing intervals and strengthening the core muscles, ignoring a proper diet that provides the body with adequate iron will be a stumbling block to an athlete trying to achieve optimal performance. In short, Iron plays a critical role in an athlete’s performance; however, it is also one of the most misunderstood “essential” dietary components. Thus a few minutes spent trying to understand the important role it plays in performance and the simple things one can do to maintain healthy iron levels in the body will result in great rewards.
According to Dr. Jim Weinstein (Registered Dietitian, Board Certified Sports Dietitian and Category 2 racer), whose role as a nutritionist dietitian for the United States Air Force gives him many unique opportunities to study the effects of nutrition in extreme training environments, the role of iron in the body is very complex and complicated. He says that though iron is “essential” for proper functioning of the body’s oxygen transport system, it is also “tightly regulated” by the body because iron can be very toxic. In fact, iron is actually fairly difficult for the body to absorb and, according to Weinstein, “nature intended it that way” to avoid problems of “iron overload.” That’s why it is so important for an athlete to understand the role of iron in performance as well as the proper (and improper!) ways to maintain healthy levels of iron in the body.
Pro mountain biker Adam Craig eats his iron-fortified Grape-Nuts
Pro mountain biker Adam Craig eats his iron-fortified Grape-Nuts
The most basic question, of course, is “what does iron do in the body?” In short, iron helps hemoglobin, a protein in blood, deliver more oxygen to working muscles. This allows the muscles to function longer in an aerobic state, a condition that is vital for every cycling discipline, from steady-state time trials to technical criterium events. Weinstein describes the relationship between iron and hemoglobin efficiency with the analogy of a bicycle wheel, where the protein hemoglobin is the spokes, rim, and tire, but iron is the hub.  Much like a bicycle wheel cannot function properly with a hub, hemoglobin does not function properly without iron. Having the proper levels of iron in the blood stream ensure that your body can produce adequate hemoglobin ensuring efficient oxygen transfer to your working muscles.
So an athlete’s logical conclusion would generally be “the more iron, the better!” But, according to Weinstein, it is not that simple. First off, iron absorption is inefficient, slow, and is likely a natural mechanism in place to assist in avoiding toxic overload from iron. Secondly, there are actually two types of available iron and athletes are often confused about the balance between the various sources in which they are found: heme iron, found in meat products, and non-heme iron, found in vegetables, supplements, and other non-meat sources.  Though heme iron is absorbed much better than non-heme iron, there are ways to improve non-heme iron absorption.
For an athlete to get the proper levels of iron, a good variety of healthy meats is the most accessible means. Foods such as dark meat chicken and turkey, ground beef, liver, and even oysters can provide an athlete with plenty of heme iron for proper performance. Non-heme iron, however, is a bit more difficult for the body to absorb but equally important as it will likely be the majority of iron that an average person consumes. Fortunately, it can be found in reasonably abundant levels in non-meat sources such as lentils, black-eyed peas, soybeans and oatmeal. Various breakfast cereals, in fact, are one of the best sources of non-heme iron as they are often fortified with iron. One half cup (less than a full bowl!) of Grape Nuts Cereal, for instance, provides 90% of the daily recommended amount of non-heme iron. Combining that cereal with a good source of Vitamin C, according to Weinstein, maximizes the body’s ability to absorb the non-heme iron. So a daily bowl of an iron-fortified breakfast cereal, such as Grape-Nuts, with a small glass of orange or tomato juice — as your mother probably told you — is a great way for athletes to start their training day. An alternative for other meals in the day would be to incorporate high iron vegetables into a salad with a good vitamin C source like green peppers or mandarin oranges that goes along with a meal containing almost any kind of beans or lentils. Interestingly, cooking with a cast iron skillet can also impart non-heme iron into your foods.
Numerous experiments have shown that a “typical” athlete (non-vegetarian, training at sea level) generally has adequate levels of iron in their blood. Of course, if you are a female, a vegetarian, or living anywhere above sea level, especially at a high altitude, you should pay special attention to your diet to ensure that you consume adequate iron to prevent iron deficiency or worse, anemia. And the key, as Weinstein continually repeats, is not finding the perfect supplement, but to rely on a healthy diet with a variety of iron sources. In fact, there is no legal way to increase iron in the blood that is as effective as proper nutrition. “Good food,” according to Weinstein, “is the most effective, most efficient and — let’s be honest — best tasting form of supplementation!”
But what about iron deficiency and anemia? Having low iron stores or inadequate iron to make enough hemoglobin (Anemia) has been shown to negatively effect athletic performance but the signs and symptoms of iron deficiency are often hard to distinguish in an athlete.  For example, “feeling tired,” is a common sign—but what athlete doesn’t feel tired? One good starting point all athletes should consider, Weinstein urges, is to have a doctor periodically check iron levels through a simple blood test call Ferritin. Most likely, as he has seen in years of experience and volumes of laboratory testing, if you are an athlete “with a healthy and varied diet with good sources of iron, you are unlikely to have low levels of iron in your blood, but it doesn’t hurt to get checked to be sure.”
So even though iron is bit tough for the body to absorb, it is easy for an athlete to maintain necessary levels for peak performance by simply paying attention to your diet. If an athlete is doing so, as Weinstein contends, there really is no reason to assume that a little fatigue or feelings of “underperforming” are a result of an iron deficiency. Over-the-counter supplements, he adds emphatically, should only be used when recommended by a physician or a dietitian. The balance of iron in an athlete’s body is delicate and Weinstein argues that this is absolutely a case of “a little is good, but more is not better.”

If, however, an athlete has health concerns or if an athlete is considering a vegetarian lifestyle, training at altitude or has lost any significant amounts of blood recently, having iron levels monitored “is a prudent path to take” says Weinstein. Additionally, athletes hoping to maximize their performance should consider consulting with a registered dietitian who can help an athlete build a healthy eating program selecting great food sources of nutrition to maximize performance.
With a little menu planning and thoughtful dining options, an athlete can easily maintain the appropriate levels of iron to maximize the potential of all those hours of training and diligent attention to equipment selection and maintenance. It’s actually an easy combination. But should an athlete ignore the healthy and varied sources of iron that are so readily available, he is definitely risking the potential to undermine all that training by a simple lack of appropriate iron levels in the body, a completely preventable situation for any athlete.

This Article Updated October 3, 2012 @ 10:26 AM For more information contact: