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Running & Iron Deficiency

By Erin Coleman, R.D., L.D. ; Updated April 18, 2017

Iron deficiency is common among endurance athletes, especially those who are female, according to a study published in “PLOS ONE” in 2013. This is often due to loss of iron through sweat, destruction of red blood cells or gastrointestinal blood loss from vigorous training. Getting too little dietary iron can severely inhibit running performance, but iron-deficiency anemia can be treated with an iron-rich diet and often the use of iron supplements.

Effects on Performance

Since iron is necessary to supply oxygen from the lungs to body tissues -- including an athlete's muscles -- iron deficiency causes fatigue, irritability, headaches and shortness of breath, which can all negatively impact a runner’s performance. Perceived exertion during runs is often greater in iron-deficient runners. If you’re a runner who is experiencing any of these symptoms, ask your doctor to check your iron levels using a simple blood test. Correcting iron-deficiency anemia can significantly improve your performance.

Groups at Risk

Female runners, especially those of childbearing age, have increased iron needs due to iron loss during menstruation and increased iron requirements during pregnancy. Adolescent runners and athletes following vegetarian diets also have increased risks of developing iron-deficiency anemia, according to PubMed Health. If you’re in one of these at-risk groups, make sure to consume at least the recommended dietary allowance, or RDA, for iron each day. The RDAs are 8 milligrams per day for all men and women over age 50, 18 milligrams per day for women ages 19 to 50, 27 milligrams of iron daily during pregnancy and 9 milligrams per day for breast-feeding women.

Boosting Iron Intake

Iron-rich foods include iron-fortified breakfast cereals, red meat, poultry, seafood, egg yolks, legumes and spinach. However, dietary iron is not always absorbed well by the human body. Heme iron, found in meat, seafood, poultry and egg yolks, is more readily absorbed than nonheme iron found in plant-based foods. Meat proteins and vitamin C enhance nonheme iron absorption, while calcium, tannins in tea and soy proteins can hinder iron absorption, notes the Office of Dietary Supplements. Therefore, to help prevent iron deficiency, runners should choose a variety of foods rich in heme iron and consume vitamin C-rich foods -- such as orange juice, red peppers and kiwi fruit -- with nonheme iron to enhance absorption.

Correcting Iron Deficiency

Runners who have iron-deficiency anemia may require over-the-counter or prescription iron supplements to correct the deficiency and eliminate related side effects such as fatigue. The Office of Dietary Supplements suggests a common treatment for iron-deficiency anemia for adults is taking 50 to 60 milligrams of elemental iron twice daily for three months. However, effective treatments for iron-deficiency anemia are highly individualized and should safely be completed under medical supervision. Getting too much iron from supplements can be toxic.

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