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Lack of Iron Slowing You Down?

by Louise | May 22nd, 2013 | Fitness Expert
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runningThere’s quite a lot to say regarding iron and runners, but the first thing to note is that if you’re a runner who is not actively including either iron rich foods or iron supplements in your diet, there’s a good chance that your performance is being hindered by low iron levels.

Low iron levels causes fewer red blood cells and lower hemoglobin levels, which in turn causes less oxygen to be transported to your muscles, ultimately slowing you down. Why are runners more at risk for low iron levels? Two large modes of iron loss are through foot strike hemolysis and sweating. When running, red blood cells are damaged when the foot hits the ground, causing decreased hemoglobin levels. When that process is compounded iron loss through sweating (though it is not as much), you can see how things quickly stack up against runners with high mileage. Female runners also lose iron during menstruation.

Studies have shown that iron deficiency around 30% of male athletes and 60% of female athletes, and a brief glance at the statistics among my own teammates more than confirms that results. My coach has all incoming runners test their serum ferritin levels before competing with the team, and after many years of seeing countless young women and men come in with detrimentally low levels, he now asks that all incoming distance runners supplement their diet with iron, unless their test result shows ferritin levels in excess of 200 micrograms/L. Levels below 30 micrograms/L and 40 micrograms/L can negatively impact performance for women and men, respectively.

What was my level when I first got tested? A whopping 7 micrograms/L. My coach was surprised that I could even make it out the door on a daily basis. When I ran my best mile, my iron level had been recently measured at 40 micrograms/L (my highest ever). I struggled this past season to even come within 10 seconds of my PR. It came as no surprise to my coach that when I had my serritin checked again, it was down to just 9 micrograms/L. I’ve been more consistent in taking iron supplements since then and am now running with better results.

How can you tell if your iron levels are too low? It’s a bit of a predicament for runners, because the common symptoms are fatigue and shortness of breath–what most of us experience after every race or workout; it’s part of our sport. However, if you have any worries about being iron deficient, checking serum ferritin requires a simple blood test that your physician will most likely approve if you explain your mileage and a feeling of fatigue. If the results come back normal, it is still good to have a value for comparison in the future.

 

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All health and fitness information is provided for educational purposes. Please consult with your physician before beginning any exercise regimen.