Why Female Runners Need Iron

As a running coach, I commonly get e-mails from friends and clients that, after months training, begin to exhibit unusually high heart rates.  The first conclusion one might draw is that they are “over trained”.  If this were the case, a few days rest would seem like the logical solution; however, after taking a few days off if the problem persists, what then? 

Iron deficiency

The culprit may be iron deficiency, which for women especially, occurs more often than you might think. This problem commonly stems from high training volume, too much anaerobic training, chronic consumption of aspirin and excessive menstrual flow (in women of course). Beyond these concerns and what I believe to be more likely the underlying cause is diets that are too low in animal products.

I understand how unpopular it is for me to advise athletes to eat meat with all the trendy diets in the world today, especially those that are vegan oriented. It’s a fact that lean meat is a far better staple for iron than any plant food.

Where does dietary iron come from?

Dietary iron comes to us in two forms: “heme iron”, which is found in animal meat and non-“heme iron”, which comes from plants. Very little of the iron we consume is easily absorbed by the body regardless of where it comes from. However, heme iron has shown to be absorbed best, at a rate of about 15 percent. Non-heme iron on the other hand, is absorbed at a rate of only 5 percent.

What to do if you are iron deficient

If having read this, you suspect that you are a candidate for low iron you have a few options: you could have a blood test conducted to measure your serum ferritin levels, which requires fasting with no exercise for a minimum of 15 hours, or you could simply make a point to introduce lean red meat into your diet for a week and see how you feel.  You may be surprised how much better your training response might be once you get your iron levels back to normal.

Lessons from the experts

Last summer I attended a series of lectures offered by some of the most respected running coaches in the world.  Coach Joe Vigil who was named National Coach of the Year on 14 different occasions told us that he had all of his female athletes take blood tests every three months, and at any sign of low iron he would provide them with an iron supplement cocktail.

I have one case in particular where a female high school cross country runner complained that she would visually black out after or during the latter part of a workout and that her energy levels were low. She was sore often from moderate workouts and just could not seem to recover. I prompted her to begin eating food that was high in iron and even suggested taking a teaspoon of black strap molasses in the morning before a workout (another iron-rich food). She was amazed at how quickly her body responded and was able to return to training without any of the issues she had been struggling with in the past.

What's better: iron supplements, meat, or vegetables?

Personally, I recommend going the lean cuts of meat route.  For those of you who will simply not eat meat, you would do well to ensure that you eat a diet high in green leafy vegetables, raisins, dates, dried fruit and lima beans.  Try to avoid iron supplements; if you feel you must have them, it is prudent to seek out a registered dietitian before trying to correct the problem because too much iron can be toxic. Once again, it seems that nothing has greater influence over our health and ability to train hard than sound nutrition.

By Richard Diaz, Owner of Diaz Human Performance  and host of the Natural Running Network podcast.

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