The Effect Iron Deficiency Has on Swimming?

(Laura O Shea)

Lately I've been feeling very tired at swimming, not making my usual times and feeling sore after the warm up. I've tried taking rest and time off but I don't seam to recover. This has been going on for about a month now and I finally went to the doctor and he said I may have a low iron count, and I was wondering, would this have been the reason for the dramatic drop in my times?

Your Coach's Answer:

Hi Laura, thank you for your question. One of the most frustrating, but also most common complaints among athletes is this feeling of fatigue and plateau. There are many causes of this, but since you mentioned that you have been resting, it doesn’t sound like a simple case of over-training.

Iron deficiency is actually a very common cause of poor athletic performance and fatigue. According to the Mayo Clinic, some symptoms of iron deficiency, aka anemia, are extreme fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, dizziness or lightheadedness, and fast heartbeat, to name a few, all of which could spell disaster to an athlete trying to reach peak performance.

As a woman, you are especially at risk, since women tend to be more susceptible to low iron count due to the natural fact that we lose a bunch of those really important red blood cells every month. But also, diet, ability to absorb iron, pregnancy, and any other kind of blood loss, such as blood donation, can also affect our iron levels, and thus our athletic performance.

The only way to know whether low iron is really the culprit is to try to increase your iron levels and then rate how you feel in your swimming. The best way to quickly raise your iron levels is to take a supplement. Follow the guidelines on the package, though, since too much iron is just as dangerous as too little. If you sense an improvement in your workouts, it’s very likely that low iron
was at least part of the problem.

I would also recommend taking a look at your diet. Unless you are one of those people who naturally doesn’t absorb iron efficiently, this could be an indication that your diet needs some improvement. Your fatigue could simply be the result of a poor diet, lacking in the proper amount of protein, carbs, fats, and nutrients that every athlete needs to perform at her best.

Some examples of iron-rich foods are: meats, eggs, leafy green vegetables like kale, spinach and collard greens, iron-fortified foods like some breakfast cereals and grains, and legumes such as beans, lentils and chick-peas.

Next time you have a few minutes to make breakfast, skip the toast and try this: Cook two whole eggs or one egg and one egg white, heat up some frozen broccoli or spinach in the microwave along with a half cup of canned beans. Mix it all together or plate it up separately and top with some tomato salsa. There’s a meal that is unconventional, but packed with iron-rich protein, slow-metabolizing carbs, fiber, and nutrients to keep you full, and powering through your next workout.

I hope this information has been helpful and good luck in your future endeavors. Keep me updated on your progress.

Further Reading: For an interesting read about iron deficiency in athletes, check out this article:
Fatigue and Iron Deficiency in Athletes-a patient’s guide, by Dr. Ruth Highet-Sports Physician

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