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Iron Deficiency in Runners

There’s a quote somewhere that goes something like “Running is a metaphor for life, because you get out of it what you put into it.”

We always tend to hope that this is the case, that we will be rewarded for our hard work with success. However, in running, as in life, there are many conditions out of our control that can prevent us from achieving our goals, regardless of the effort that we put into them. There is nothing more frustrating than lining up on race day after months or even years of hard work, and not performing as well as you believed you would.

In my first few years of competitive running, I experienced this frequently. My training and workouts predicted much faster times than I was actually running in races. I began to doubt myself and question what was causing these bad performances.

The answer finally came at the beginning of my collegiate career, through a blood test. The results showed that I was iron deficient, with especially low hemoglobin levels–something very common in runners, and even more so in female runners, who lose extra iron through menstruation.

Group of women in their 30s walking together in the outdoors. Cute blond and fit women in their mid 30s who are active and working to stay healthy.

The most critical role of iron is to transport oxygen from the lungs to muscle tissues so that the muscles can convert the oxygen into ATP, the body’s source of energy, through aerobic respiration.

Thus, insufficient amounts of this micronutrient result in underperformance, as muscles are inhibited by lack of oxygen, with respiration becoming anaerobic, producing lactic acid rather than energy, resulting in an earlier onset of fatigue.

Iron deficiency often goes undiagnosed in runners, as they blame their fatigue on high training volume, and bad races on numerous factors, from their mentality to what they ate the night before. While these and many other factors can greatly affect performance, they are not always to blame. Runners who regularly experience unexplained fatigue or decrease in performance may be showing signs of iron deficiency.

Young and strong rugby team on the field, rough group training.

If these symptoms do not go away with adequate intake of iron through dietary sources, such as red meat and leafy greens, it may be beneficial to have blood levels tested. If your iron levels come back low, a doctor or dietician can suggest specific dietary needs to increase levels, or recommend supplemental iron.

Iron Deficiency in Runners

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