Signs of Iron Deficiency & How to Fix It

If you’re a female endurance athlete, you could have an iron deficiency.

About one in three female endurance athletes are low in iron. Why? There are four main reasons. For one, premenopausal women lose iron during their periods as blood is rich in iron. They also lose iron every time their feet strike the ground as the pounding destroys red blood cells. Also, sweating depletes your iron as you sweat out the mineral.

Related: What to eat during your period

Iron deficiency in runners and how to fix it
Iron deficiency is common in runners, especially female distance runners.

Finally, running can cause a hormone spike post-workout that inhibits iron absorption. Adding insult to injury, if you’re a vegetarian because plant-based iron is absorbed less by the body than animal-based iron.

Related: RED-S: Signs & treatment

Can low iron affect your running?

Yes. Being low in iron can be detrimental to the way you feel and how you perform. That’s because iron is part of the protein hemoglobin which plays a starring role in supplying your muscles and organs with oxygen. Iron is also found in muscles in the form of myoglobin, the protein that extracts oxygen from hemoglobin molecules. There must be enough iron for the metabolism and transport of oxygen to function properly–particularly during exercise. Iron also works to convert carbs and fat into energy.

So, if you’re low in iron, you’re likely feeling low in energy.

Here are signs of iron deficiency:

  • Not recovering well after runs
  • Frequent injury
  • Frequent illness
  • Tired all the time
  • Irritable
  • High exercise heart rate
  • Fatigue early on in a workout

I realized I had low iron about a year ago after getting a blood test at my doctor’s office. I wasn’t recovering well from workouts. My times were much slower. And, I was getting sick all the time. Most doctors will easily perform a test and give you your iron stores number, also known as ferritin. Most running coaches and health professionals agree that a level lower than 30 for women is likely to affect performance. The optimal ferritin range for female endurance runners is 50-100.

Related: Hidden health benefits of running

I had been on a supplement but when my miles went up along with the temperatures, my levels began to drop back down to 20.

Here’s how to increase your iron.

These are the measures I’m taking to fortify my iron stores:

  • I’m eating iron rich foods like beef, eggs, chickpeas, and dark chocolate. Reminder, iron from animal-based products have a higher rate of absorption than those from plants. Related: 5 ways to a healthy kitchen.
  • I’m taking MegaFood’s Blood Builder. This supplement has been suggested to me by more people than I can count. It’s all natural, can be taken on an empty stomach, has vitamin C to help with absorption, and also B12 and folic acid which women tend to be low in anyway. Also, you can double up on the supplement if your levels are low enough (and your doctor says it is okay).
  • Speaking of vitamin C, I’m trying to follow any iron intake with vitamin C like by drinking a glass of orange juice. Moisture-rich foods like applesauce or spaghetti sauce can also aid in intake. Bonus points if you drink a smoothie that has OJ in it.
  • I’m not combining my supplement with caffeine, calcium, and zinc which can interfere with absorption.Thus, I’m not taking it in the morning with my coffee.
  • I’m cooking foods in a cast iron skillet.
  • When training season is over, I will cross-train to allow my stores to build back up.

Related: What to eat after a long run

It can take about a month of these measures before you notice an improvement.

If you suspect your iron levels could be low, I urge you to get tested so you can fly, mother runner.

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