Background: Iron deficiency (ID) is one of the most important metabolic dysfunctions. Athletic performance depends on oxygen transport and mitochondrial efficiency, thus on optimal iron balance. We hypothesised that physical extremes result in ID in elite athletes and that the short recovery period may be insufficient to allow a lasting replenishment of iron reserves.
Methods: Iron metabolism was examined in 20 elite rowing athletes and 10 professional soccer players at the end of a competitive season, after recuperation and during pre-season training. Absolute ID values were defined as ferritin <30 μg/L, functional ID as ferritin 30-99 μg/L or 100-299 μg/L+transferrin saturation <20%.
Results: At the end of season, 27% of all athletes had absolute ID and 70% showed functional ID. Absolute iron depletion was not generally restored after recuperation and observed at all time points in 14% of the athletes. Although athletes with initially low ferritin levels showed a slight increase during recuperation (p<0.09), these increases remained within borderline levels. Furthermore, 10% showed borderline haemoglobin levels, suggestive of mild anaemia, as defined by the World Health Organisation.
Conclusion: A significant proportion of professional athletes have ID, independent of the training mode. Although recuperation seems to allow a certain recovery of iron storage, particularly in athletes with initially low ferritin levels, this retrieval was insufficient to fully normalise reduced iron levels. Therefore, iron status should be carefully monitored during the various training and competitive periods in elite athletes. An adequate iron supplementation may be needed to maintain balanced iron stores.
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