Iron deficiency, or low iron stores, is the most common type of anemia. Studies have found that iron deficiency is prevalent among endurance athletes, particularly runners. Iron is a trace mineral that is a major component of red blood cells and carries oxygen to muscles and tissue for use during aerobic activities, such as running.
Iron deficiency in runners may impair performance because oxygen cannot be transported as affectively to your muscles. Iron deficiency in runners may occur from the decrease in iron stores through sweating, destruction of red blood cells from the foot strike, and iron depletion associated with tissue inflammation. Runners who are weight conscious may also have a low intake of iron-rich foods, increasing their risk of iron deficiency. In the general population and among endurance athletes, iron deficient anemia is more common in women of childbearing age who lose blood during menstruation. Those who follow vegetarian diets also have an increased risk of iron deficiency if they do not monitor what they eat.
Make sure that iron rich foods are part of your diet during training. Include foods such as lean meats, legumes, and iron fortified cereals, such as Cream of Wheat. Vitamin C helps your body absorb iron, particularly iron from plant foods. Pair your iron rich foods with fruits and vegetables such as citrus fruits, berries and peppers which are great sources of vitamin C. If you are experiencing symptoms such as unexplained fatigue, along with a decline in your performance, speak with your healthcare provider about getting an evaluation for anemia and iron deficiency. An anemia screen is particularly important if these symptoms occur among women with heavy menstrual bleeding, vegetarians, or if you have a medical problem that may cause anemia, such as celiac disease. Avoid overuse of iron supplements, which could lead to long-term adverse health effects and iron toxicity.
Sotiria Everett is a sports nutritionist for Hospital for Special Surgery’s Women’s Sports Medicine Center and an inpatient clinical nutritionist. In her role at the Women’s Sports Medicine Center, she provides sports nutrition counseling to active individuals and athletes of all ages. She loves sports and fitness and enjoys running, spinning and trying new outdoor sports.