Sports Medicine

, Volume 5, Issue 3, pp 171–184 | Cite as

Iron, Zinc and Magnesium Nutrition and Athletic Performance

  • Roger McDonald
  • Carl L. Keen
Research Review


During the last decade there has been considerable interest in the idea that dietary trace element supplementation can result in an improvement in athletic performance. The current paper discusses this idea as it relates to 3 elements: iron, zinc and magnesium. Emphasis has been placed on examining the implicit assumptions underlying the idea that mineral supplements help the athlete. These assumptions include the beliefs that the athlete has a higher than normal requirement for minerals; that the athlete consumes a diet inadequate in these minerals; and that a marginal deficiency of these elements has a direct effect on athletic performance.

Evidence is presented that both iron deficiency and magnesium deficiency can result in a significant reduction in exercise performance; however, the biochemical lesions under-lying the reductions in exercise performance have not been identified. There is evidence that dietary magnesium intake may be suboptimal in some individuals, thus dietary supplementation of this element may be useful in some population groups. Excessive magnesium supplementation is not thought to be a serious health problem. Similar to magnesium, dietary iron supplements can improve athletic performance in individuals severely deficient in this element. However, few studies have documented a need for iron supplements in healthy athletes. If iron supplements are used, it is important that the level of supplementation is not excessive, as excess iron in the diet can result in an induced zinc deficiency.

In marked contrast to iron and magnesium, there is little evidence for the idea that zinc deficiency influences exercise performance in humans. Despite this fact, zinc supplements have been widely advocated for the athlete, as it is known that intense exercise can result in changes in zinc metabolism. If zinc supplements are used, it is important that they are not excessive, as excess zinc in the diet can result in a secondary copper deficiency.


Iron Deficiency Zinc Deficiency Exercise Performance Zinc Supplement Serum Zinc 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Altura BM, Altura BT. Interactions of magnesium and potassium on blood aspects in view of hypertension: review of present status and new findings. Magnesium 3: 175–194, 1984PubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Andersen HT, Barkve H. Iron deficiency and muscular work performance: an evaluation of cardio-respiratory function of iron deficient subjects with and without anemia. Scandinavian Journal of Laboratory Investigation 25 (Suppl. 144): 1–39, 1970Google Scholar
  3. Beller GA, Maher JT, Hartley LH, Bass DE, Wacker WEC. Changes in serum and sweat magnesium levels during work in the heat. Aviation and Space Environmental Medicine 46: 709–712, 1975Google Scholar
  4. Beutler E, Larsh S, Tanzi F. Iron enzymes in iron deficiency: VII. Oxygen consumption measurements in iron-deficient subjects. American Journal of the Medical Sciences 239: 759–765, 1960PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Brotherhood J, Brozovic B, Pugh LGC. Haematological status of middle- and long-distance runners. Clinical Science and Molecular Medicine 48: 139–145, 1975PubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Buick FJ, Gledhill N, Froese AB, Spriet L, Meyers EC. Effect of induced erythrocythemia on aerobic work capacity. Journal of Applied Physiology: Respiratory, Environmental, and Exercise Physiology 48: 636–642, 1980Google Scholar
  7. Campbell WW, Anderson RA. Effects of aerobic exercise and training on the trace minerals chromium, zinc and copper. Sports Medicine 4: 9–18, 1987PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Clement D, Asmundson B, Medhurst C. Hemoglobin values: comparative study of the 1976 Canadian Olympic team. Canadian Medical Association Journal 117: 614–616, 1977PubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Conn CA, Ryder E, Schemmel RA, Ku P, Seefeldt V, et al. Relationship of maximal oxygen consumption to plasma and erythrocyte magnesium and to plasma copper levels in elite young runners and controls. Federation Proceedings 45: 972, 1986Google Scholar
  10. Consolazio CF, Nelson RA, Matoush LR, Hughes RC, Urone P. The trace mineral losses in sweat (Report No. 284), US Army Medical Research and Nutrition Laboratory, Denver, 1964Google Scholar
  11. Costill DL, Cote R, Fink W. Muscle water and electrolytes following varied levels of dehydration in man. Journal of Applied Physiology 40: 6–11, 1976PubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Crouse EF, Hooper PL, Atterbom HA, Papenfuss RL. Zinc ingestion and lipoprotein values in sedentary and endurance-trained men. Journal of the American Medical Association 252: 785–787, 1984PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Davies KJ, Maguire JJ, Dallman PR, Brooks GA, Packer L. Exercise bioenergetics during dietary iron deficiency and repletion. In Saltman & Hegenauer (Eds) The biochemistry and physiology of iron, Elsevier Biomedical, New York, 1982Google Scholar
  14. de Wijn JF, de Jongste JL, Mosterd W, Willebrand D. Haemoglobin, packed cell volume, serum iron and iron binding capacity of selected athletes during training. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 11: 42–51, 1971PubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Dressendorfer RH, Sockolov R. Hypozincemia in runners. Physician and Sportsmedicine 8: 97–100, 1980Google Scholar
  16. Dressendorfer RH, Wade CE, Keen CL, Scaff JH. Plasma mineral levels in marathon runners during a 20-day road race. Physician and Sportsmedicine 10: 113–118, 1982Google Scholar
  17. Edgerton VR, Ohira Y, Hettiarachchi J, Senewiratne B, Gardner GW, et al. Elevation of hemoglobin and work tolerance in irondeficient subjects. Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology 27: 77–86, 1981PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Ehn L, Carlmark B, Hoglund S. Iron status in athletes involved in intense physical activity. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 12: 61–64, 1980PubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Ekblom B, Goldgrag AN, Gullbring B. Response to exercise after blood loss and reinfusion. Journal of Applied Physiology 33: 175–180, 1972PubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Festa MD, Anderson HL, Dowdy RP, Ellersieck MR. Effect of zinc on copper excretion and retention in men. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 41: 285–292, 1985PubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Finch CA, Miller LR, Inamdar AR, Person R, Seiler K, et al. Iron deficiency in the rat: physiological and biochemical studies of muscle dysfunction. Journal of Clinical Investigation 58: 447–453, 1976PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Finch CA, Gollnick PD, Hlastala MP, Miller LR, Dillmann E, et al. Lactic acidosis as a result of iron deficiency. Journal of Clinical Investigation 64: 129–137, 1979PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Fischer PWF, Giroux A, L’Abbe MR. Effect of zinc supplementation on copper status in adult man. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 40: 743–746, 1984PubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Franz RB, Ruddel H, Todd GL, Dorheim TA, Buell JC, et al. Physiologic changes during a marathon with special references to magnesium. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 4: 187–194, 1985PubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Frederickson LA, Puhl JL, Runyan WS. Effects of training on indices of iron status of young female cross-country runners. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 15: 271–276, 1983PubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Gardner GW, Edgerton VR, Senewiratne B, Barnard RJ, Ohira Y. Physical work capacity and metabolic stress in subjects with iron deficiency anemia. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 30: 910–917, 1977PubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Golden BE, Golden MHN. Plasma zinc, rate of weight gain, and the energy cost of tissue deposition in children recovering from severe malnutrition on a cow’s milk or soya protein based diet. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 34: 892–899, 1981aPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Golden MHN, Golden BE. Effect of zinc supplementation on the dietary intake, rate of weight gain, and energy cost of tissue deposition in children recovering from severe malnutrition. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 34: 900–908, 1981bPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Goodwin JS, Hunt WC, Hooper P, Garry PJ. Relationship between zinc intake, physical activity, and blood levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol in a healthy elderly population. Metabolism 34: 519–523, 1985PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hackman RM, Keen CL. Changes in serum zinc and copper levels after zinc supplementation in running and nonrunning men. In Katch (Ed.) Sports health and nutrition, pp. 89–99, Human Kinetics Publishing, Champaign, Illinois, 1986Google Scholar
  31. Hagler L, Askew EW, Neville JR, Mellick PW, Coppes RI, et al. Influence of dietary iron deficiency on hemoglobin, myoglobin, their respective reductases, and skeletal muscle mitochondrial respiration. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 34: 2169–2177, 1981PubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Hallberg L. Iron. In Present knowledge in nutrition, The Nutrition Foundation, Inc., Washington, D.C., 1984Google Scholar
  33. Haralambie G. Serum zinc in athletes in training. International Journal of Sports Medicine 2: 135–138, 1981PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hetland Ø, Brubak EA, Refsum HE, Strømme SB. Serum and erythrocyte zinc concentrations after prolonged heavy exercise. In Howard & Poortmans (Eds) Metabolic adaptation to prolonged physical exercise, pp. 367–370, Brikhausen Verlag, Basel, 1975Google Scholar
  35. Hochacka P, French C, Guppy M. When and how the alphaglycerophosphate cycle works. In Landry & Orbay (Eds) The Third International Symposium on Biochemistry of Exercise, Symposia Specialist, New York, 1978Google Scholar
  36. Holloszy JO, Oscai LB. Effect of exercise on alpha-glycerophosphate dehydrogenase activity in skeletal muscle. Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics 130: 653–656, 1969PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Hurley LS, Keen CL, Lonnerdal B. Aspects of trace element interactions during development. Federation Proceedings 42: 1735–1739, 1983PubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Hooper PL, Visconti L, Garry PJ, Johnson GE. Zinc lowers high-density lipoprotein-cholesterol levels. Journal of the American Medical Association 244: 1960–1961, 1980PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Jooste PL, Wolfswinkel JM, Schoeman JJ, Strydom NB. Epileptic-type convulsions and magnesium deficiency. Aviation and Space Environmental Medicine 50: 734–735, 1979Google Scholar
  40. Karlson J, Diamant B, Saltin B. Lactic dehydrogenase activity in muscle after prolonged exercise in man. Journal of Applied Physiology 25: 88–91, 1968Google Scholar
  41. Karpovich P, Millman N. Athletes as blood donors. Research Quarterly 13: 166–168, 1942Google Scholar
  42. Keen CL, Gershwin ME, Lowney P, Hurley LS, Stern JS. The influence of dietary magnesium intake on exercise capacity and hematological parameters in rats. Metabolism 36: 788–793, 1987PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Keen CL, Hackman RM. Trace elements in athletic performance. In Katch FI (Ed.) Sport, health and nutrition: 1984 Olympic Scientific Congress Proceedings, Vol. 2, Human Kinetics Publisher, Champaign, 1986Google Scholar
  44. Keen CL, Lowney P, Gershwin ME, Stern JS, Hurley LS. The effect of dietary magnesium intake on endurances of untrained rats. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 4: 368, 1985Google Scholar
  45. Koziol BJ, Ohira Y, Simpson DR, Edgerton VR. Biochemical skeletal muscle and hematological profiles of moderate and severely iron deficient and anemic adult rats. Journal of Nutrition 108: 1306–1314, 1978PubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Krotkiewski M, Gudmundsson M, Backstrom P, Mandroukas K. Zinc and muscle strength. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica 116: 309–311, 1982PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Lichti E, Turner M, Deweese M, Henzel J. Zinc concentration in venous plasma before and after exercise in dogs. Missouri Medicine, 303-304, 1970Google Scholar
  48. Liu L, Borowski G, Rose LI. Hypomagnesemia in a tennis player. Physician and Sportsmedicine 11: 79–80, 1983Google Scholar
  49. Lowney P, Gershwin ME, Stern JS, Keen CL. Magnesium intake and endurance capacity in rats. Federation Proceedings, in press, 1987Google Scholar
  50. Lukaski HC, Bolonchuk WW, Klevay LM, Milne DB, Sandstead HH. Maximal oxygen consumption as related to magnesium, copper and zinc nutriture. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 37: 407–415, 1983PubMedGoogle Scholar
  51. Lukaski HC, Bolonchuk WW, Klevay LM, Milne DB, Sandstead HH. Changes in plasma zinc content after exercise in men fed a low-zinc diet. American Journal of Physiology 247: E88–E93, 1984PubMedGoogle Scholar
  52. McDonald R, Hegenauer J, Sucec A, Saltman P. Effects of iron deficiency and exercise on myoglobin in rats. European Journal of Applied Physiology 52: 414–419, 1984CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. McDonald RB, Strause L, Hegenauer J, Saltman P, Sucec AA. Limitations to maximum exercise performance: implications of iron deficiency. In Dotson & Humphery (Eds) Exercise physiology: current selected research, Vol. 1, AMS Press, New York, 1986Google Scholar
  54. McLane JA, Fell RD, McKay RH, Winder WW, Brown EB, et al. Physiological and biochemical effects of iron deficiency on rat skeletal muscle. American Journal of Physiology 241: C47–C54, 1981PubMedGoogle Scholar
  55. Morgan PN, Keen CL, Lonnerdal B. Effects of varying dietary zinc intake on mouse pups during recovery from malnutrition. In Hurley et al. (Eds) Trace elements in man and animals, TEMA-6, Plenum Press, in press, 1988Google Scholar
  56. Morgan KJ, Stampley GL, Zabin ME, Fischer DR. Magnesium and calcium dietary intakes of the U.S. population. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 4: 195–206, 1985PubMedGoogle Scholar
  57. Murray JF, Gold P, Lamar B. Systemic oxygen transport in induced normovolemic anemia and polycythemia. American Journal of Physiology 203: 720–724, 1962PubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. National Research Council. Recommended dietary allowances, 9th Ed., National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., 1980Google Scholar
  59. Ohira Y, Chen C, Hegenauer J, Saltman P. Adaptations of lactate metabolism in iron-deficient rats. Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine 173: 213–216, 1983PubMedGoogle Scholar
  60. Ohno H, Yamashita K, Doi R, Yamamura K, Kondo T, et al. Exercise-induced changes in blood zinc and related proteins in humans. Journal of Applied Physiology 58: 1453–1458, 1985PubMedGoogle Scholar
  61. Park JHY, Grandjean CJ, Antonson DL, Vanderhoof JA. Effects of isolated zinc deficiency on the composition of skeletal muscle, liver and bone during growth in rats. Journal of Nutrition 116: 610–617, 1986PubMedGoogle Scholar
  62. Peters AJ, Dressendorfer RH, Rimar J, Keen CL. Diets of endurance runners competing in a 20-day road race. Physician and Sportsmedicine 114: 63–70, 1986Google Scholar
  63. Prasad AS, Brewer GJ, Shoomaker EB, Rabbani P. Hypocupremia induced by zinc therapy in adults. Journal of the American Medical Association 240: 2166–2168, 1978PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Puhl SH, Runyan WB, Kruse SJ. Erythrocyte changes during training in high school women cross-country runners. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 52: 484–494, 1981PubMedGoogle Scholar
  65. Rayssiguier Y. Role of magnesium and potassium in the patho-genesis of artherosclerosis. Magnesium 3: 226–238, 1984PubMedGoogle Scholar
  66. Refsum HE, Meen HD, Stromme SB. Whole blood, serum and erythrocyte magnesium concentrations after repeated heavy exercise of long duration. Scandinavian Journal of Clinical Laboratory Investigation 32: 123–127, 1973CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Richardson JH, Drake PD. The effects of zinc on fatigue of striated muscle. Journal of Sports Medicine 19: 133–134, 1979Google Scholar
  68. Rose LI, Carroll DR, Lowe SL, Peterson EW, Cooper KH. Serum electrolyte changes after marathon running. Journal of Applied Physiology 29: 449–451, 1970PubMedGoogle Scholar
  69. Schoene RB, Escourrou P, Robertson HT, Nilson KL, Parsons JR, et al. Iron repletion decreases maximal exercise lactate concentrations in female athletes with minimal iron-deficiency anemia. Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine 102: 306–312, 1983PubMedGoogle Scholar
  70. Solomons N. Competitive interaction of iron and zinc in the diet: consequences for human nutrition. Journal of Nutrition 116: 927–935, 1986PubMedGoogle Scholar
  71. Solomons NW. On the assessment of zinc and copper nutriture in man. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 32: 856–871, 1979PubMedGoogle Scholar
  72. Spencer H. Minerals and mineral interactions in human beings. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 86: 864–867, 1986PubMedGoogle Scholar
  73. Stendig-Lindberg G, Rudy N. Predictors of maximum voluntary contraction force of qudriceps femoris muscle in man. Magnesium 2: 93–104, 1983Google Scholar
  74. Stewart GA, Steel JE, Toyne AH, Stewart MJ. Observations on the haematology and the iron and protein intake of Australian Olympic athletes. Medical Journal of Australia 2: 1339–1343, 1972PubMedGoogle Scholar
  75. Stewart JG, Alquist DA, Mcgill DB, Ilstrup DS, Schwartz S, et al. Gastrointestinal blood loss and anemia in runners. Annals of Internal Medicine 100: 843–845, 1984PubMedGoogle Scholar
  76. Strause L, Hegenauer J, Saltman P. Effects of exercise on iron metabolism in rats. Nutrition Research 3: 79–89, 1983CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Van den Hamer CJA, Hoogeraad TU, Klompjan ERK. Persistence of the antagonistic influence of zinc on copper absorption after cessation of zinc supplementation for more than 5 days. Trace Elements in Medicine 1: 88–90, 1984Google Scholar
  78. Van Rij AM, Hall MT, Dohm GL, Bray J, Pories WJ. Changes in zinc metabolism following exercise in human subjects. Biological Trace Element Research 10: 99–106, 1986CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Weswig P, Winkler W. Iron supplementation and hematological data of competitive swimmers. Journal of Sports Medicine 14: 112–119, 1974Google Scholar
  80. Williams MH. Blood doping in sports. Journal of Drug Issues 10: 331–339, 1980Google Scholar
  81. Williams MH. Blood doping: an update. Physician and Sports-medicine 9: 59–63, 1981Google Scholar
  82. Wittenberg BA, Wittenberg JB, Caldwell P. Role of myoglobin in the oxygen supply to red skeletal muscle. Journal of Biological Chemistry 250: 9038–9043, 1975PubMedGoogle Scholar
  83. Wranne R, Woodson RD. A graded treadmill test for rats: maximal work performance in normal and anemic animals. Journal of Applied Physiology 34: 732–735, 1973PubMedGoogle Scholar
  84. Yoshimura H. Anemia during physical training (sports anemia). Nutrition Reviews 28: 251–253, 1970PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© ADIS Press Limited 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Roger McDonald
    • 1
  • Carl L. Keen
    • 1
  1. 1.College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Departments of Nutrition and Internal MedicineUniversity of California DavisDavisUSA

Personalised recommendations