The Iron Lady

As race day creeps closer into sight, my own expectations and hopes for the race have had to go through some recent adjustments. I began the year feeling positive towards my aim to break my 2011 time and trained in my usual fashion, however something wasn’t quite right from the start, but I couldn’t pinpoint what it was. As the months progressed, instead of feeling stronger and fitter, I felt worse and worse with each run. I became fatigued quickly and felt exhausted after what would usually be an easy run for me. I often struggled to breathe, particularly on or after hills, felt muscle aches daily and seemed to be cold all of the time. As a doctor-phobe, I self-diagnosed for months, putting my symptoms down to catching colds and under-training, until I reached the point where every run became a nightmare and I just couldn’t keep up with any of my run buddies. With less than 2 months until race day, I felt dejected, frustrated and my training schedule had to be abandoned.

At this point I swallowed my pride and went to the doctor, who promptly diagnosed it as an iron deficiency – a common problem in female endurance athletes. This was a breakthrough moment for me…I wasn’t suddenly unfit despite all my dedicated training! 

So now, after 3 weeks of taking high strength supplements and eating lots of spinach, I am getting closer to my old self with every run. Although it’s unlikely I’ll reach my goal for the WHM after my sporadic training during the past month, I feel remarkably better and stronger now than I have all year and I’ll be both relieved and happy just to be running on race day. I strongly recommend anyone experiencing similar symptoms get their iron levels checked.

The facts on iron deficiency…

  • Iron is important because the body uses it to create haemoglobin – the protein in your blood that carries oxygen. This is especially important for runners because they need enough oxygen to get to their muscles to perform continuously during exertion.
  • Women can be prone to iron deficiency if they have heavy periods and if their diet fails to provide sufficient iron. This can be caused by not eating enough iron-rich foods and by consuming foods which inhibit iron absorption such as caffeinated drinks and alcohol.
  • There is evidence to support claims that running further increases the risk of iron deficiency, due to loss of iron in sweat, urine, foot-strike on hard surfaces and the gastrointestinal bleeding which occurs in a small percentage of long distance runners.
  • Symptoms can include: loss of endurance, chronic fatigue, high exercise heart rate, low power, recurring illness, inability to concentrate, irritability, pale skin, shortness of breath and lightheadedness.
  • Iron deficiency is diagnosed by a blood test, measuring haemoglobin and ferritin. In most cases Ferrous Gluconate tablets are prescribed for 6-8 weeks to build up iron stores in the body.
  • The daily recommended iron intake for women ranges from 15-18mg and 10mg for men. Iron-rich foods include red meat, liver, spinach, whole-grains, kale and dried fruit. Vitamin C helps with iron absorption, so boost your intake with plenty of fruit and veg.
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