Athletes need iron to perform. Lacking iron can make it feel like your ankles are chained to the pavement. It can force your heart rate to uncomfortable heights. It can make your hair fall out and turn your skin yellow. Mild temperatures will feel like blizzards without enough iron in your blood.
Low iron can be a major problem for endurance athletes. It can cause poor workout results and races and lead to lasting conditions such as overtraining syndrome.
Almost 56 percent of joggers and competitive runners have their performance hampered by an iron deficiency. Running causes muscle damage and hemolysis, or the destruction of red blood cells. Normally, that’s fine, as red blood cell destruction is necessary for new muscle to grow. But it can trigger iron loss, particularly for runners training for an extreme race such as a marathon or ultra marathon. Most of the body’s iron is stored in red blood cell proteins that are destroyed during the pounding required of rigorous training. These red blood cells and their proteins transport oxygen to your working muscles when you run. With low iron levels, you generate fewer red blood cells, and less oxygen gets to your muscles.
Low iron doesn’t affect runners alone. Other endurance athletes are also susceptible to low iron levels. Iron is also lost through sweat, so any athlete who performs in high heat is at risk. That said, according to studies, sports like cycling and swimming aren’t as taxing on the musculoskeletal system as running and are not at as high a risk of iron depletion.
Luckily, you can recognize symptoms of iron depletion by paying close attention. By carefully monitoring iron intake and how you feel during exercise, you can treat and prevent iron deficiencies.
The Symptoms And What to Do About Them
The primary symptom of low iron levels is fatigue and shortness of breath. Other symptoms include hair loss, yellowing or pale skin and heightened sensitivity to the cold. Athletes often find it tricky to differentiate fatigue from yesterday’s workout from fatigue caused by low iron. But if you’re worried schedule a blood test with your physician. That’s especially true for women. It’s a simple test and most doctors should agree to administer after hearing you’re running a lot of miles and feeling more fatigued than usual. Even if you aren’t deficient, the test can help establish a baseline for your iron levels and help you identify an iron problem in the future.
What to do if You’re Deficient
Obviously, if you’re iron deficient, talk to your doctor about next steps. That said, take charge of your diet and supplementation. Know what you’re eating and consciously monitor your iron intake. Good food sources of iron include red meat, oysters, egg yolk, dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, dried fruit and whole grain or enriched cereals and bread. If you’re worried about your iron, avoid coffee, milk or tea with iron-rich meals, as calcium inhibits iron absorption. Take vitamin C with your iron-rich foods, as vitamin C aids in absorption. Exercise caution with supplements. Potential side effects can be severe and overdosing is a real threat.