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Anaemia

Updated 05 March 2019

4 signs that a runner isn't getting enough iron

Running long distances can deplete your iron levels, and iron deficiency is the most common cause of anaemia. Are you getting enough iron?

Iron deficiency and anaemia linked to iron deficiency are topics often discussed in running circles, especially in the case of long distance running.

While iron is a critical nutrient for everyone to ensure optimal levels of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, it’s especially those who run far and often who should keep an eye on their iron levels.

A number of studies have found that especially athletes may be prone to iron deficiency, which can lead to iron deficiency anaemia.

Iron and fitness

An iron deficiency leads to low haemoglobin, which is responsible for producing the red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body. It is possible to be deficient in iron without having anaemia, but anaemia can stem from this deficiency.

If you have low ferritin levels (the protein that stores your iron in your blood), but your haemoglobin count is normal, then you only have iron deficiency.

Iron deficiency anaemia affects everyone by causing symptoms such as severe exhaustion. Endurance athletes are, however, more affected, as they rely on high levels of overall fitness and stamina. When there is a shortage of haemoglobin in the blood, the athlete will struggle to perform optimally. Lower iron levels can affect aerobic training by decreasing energy and increasing muscle fatigue and cramping.

“Even a mild shortfall in iron appears not only to reduce oxygen uptake and aerobic efficiency, but also diminishes the body’s endurance capacity,” says Giulia Criscuolo, pharmacist at OTC Pharma SA and keen runner. “Any athlete involved in regular high intensity physical activity has a higher requirement and turnover of iron which is quickly depleted.”

Could you have low iron levels?

If you are a keen runner training for a gruelling event, it can be frustrating if you can’t deliver the performance you need to. It is therefore important to keep an eye on your iron levels. If you suspect you might have an iron deficiency, it’s important to have a blood test done by your doctor before you simply buy iron supplements after self-diagnosing.

According to Training Peaks, a training platform that specialises in coaching and programmes, it’s not a bad idea to get tested for iron levels regularly, especially if you are significantly increasing your workout and have been suffering from decreased energy levels or poor recovery for more than seven days.  

Not sure if you are getting enough iron? Here are some signs or you might be suffering from an iron deficiency:

1. You are extremely tired and struggle to bounce back

We are not simply talking about normal tiredness after your long run over the weekend – this is a type of fatigue that makes you struggle to get out of bed and regain your energy, even after an optimal period of rest.

Woman struggling to wake up in the morning

2. You are short of breath, even though you are a runner

You have completed marathons in the past, but suddenly a flight of stairs leaves you breathless. This is never a good sign and could mean that your body is not getting sufficient oxygen. While it can be normal when you're ill, if the situation persists, you could be suffering from an iron deficiency. 

Tired woman on stairs

3. You experience dizzy spells and a lack of concentration

Mondays after your weekend training sessions become especially hard as you struggle to concentrate on the first email of the day. You feel irritable and dizzy and can’t shake the feeling. This is a common sign of a lack of iron in the body.

Extremely exhausted woman at desk

4. Your heart rate is suddenly high

Heart rate (resting and during exercise) differs from person to person, based on physical size, gender, fitness level and overall extremities (such as the weather or running when feeling a bit tired). The average adult’s resting heart rate is anywhere between 60 to 100 bpm, but in an endurance athlete it tends to be a bit lower. When there is less oxygen in your blood because of low iron levels, your heart needs to work harder for your body to work optimally. Knowing your average heart rate (resting and during exercise) can be handy to pinpoint any abnormalities. The latest fitness devices may offer varied data, especially if you wear a wrist sensor instead of a monitor around your chest, but can still give a fairly good indication of your heart rate. If, however, you are in doubt about the readings, go to your doctor for a more reliable assessment.

Woman checking heart rate on fitness watch

Image credits: iStock