Why is Iron Important?

Iron plays a vital role in our bodies and is actually a part of many of the cells inside us. It is considered an essential mineral, as it is used to create haemoglobin, a protein found in our red blood cells which helps them to carry oxygen and myoglobin, a protein that carries and stores oxygen in muscle cells.

Many runners are actually iron deficient. If these runners who are iron deficient didn’t run, they may have sufficient iron in their diet to avoid anaemia and shortness of breath, but because they do run, they are iron deficient. I know, it sounds a bit confusing but read on.

Why do Runners Need More Iron?

As iron is used by the body to produce more haemoglobin, myoglobin and other body cells, more needs to be consumed to fulfil the needs of our body. However, runners tend to lose more iron than non-runners in various ways:

  • Ground pounding – runners who have a particularly high mileage can suffer from footstrike hemolysis. This is where red blood cells burst or rupture in the blood vessels of your feet. Red blood cells are typically replaced around every 120 days. If there is too much of an imbalance and too many red blood cells are destroyed, hemolytic anaemia can occur.
  • Sweat (and a lot of it) –¬†iron in sweat is lost by (you guessed it) sweating! The hotter, and more humid the conditions, the more iron your could potentially lose (although the amount of iron you typically lose isn’t massive). Pair this up with an intense run or training session and you could be losing a fair bit of iron.
  • Menstruation –¬†males, you don’t need to worry about this one, but since women lose iron during menstruation they may need to up their iron intake to ensure their iron levels are adequate for the level of activity they are doing.

What is Anaemia?

Anaemia is where there is a deficiency of red blood cells or haemoglobin in the blood. This means your body has a reduced capacity to transport oxygen around the body to the working muscles. Due to having less oxygen being transported to your muscles, your running performance will suffer, you may feel lethargic and rather breathless, especially after exercise.

Other side effects of anaemia include:

  • Pale skin
  • Dizziness
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty in concentrating
  • Weakened immune system

Foods Rich in Iron

Iron can be found in many animal products, especially red meat and can also be found in vegetables such as legumes and spinach. However, heme iron (the kind found in animals) can be absorbed about 20% more efficiently by the body than nonheme iron (the iron found in plants) so vegetarians may have to increase their iron intake further if they feel they are not consuming enough.

Not all the iron you eat is absorbed by the body either, with around 40% of heme iron being absorbed and less for nonheme iron. The recommended daily intake for iron is 18.9mg for women and 20.5mg for men. However, if you pound the ground regularly, it would be best if you consumed more iron than the RDA.

Foods rich in iron include:

  • Spinach
  • Organ meats (heart, liver etc.)
  • Red meat
  • Lentils
  • Dark leafy greens
  • Black beans
  • Kidney beans
  • Sardines
  • Pistachios
  • Dark chocolate (at least 85%)

Iron absorption can be inhibited by consuming tea or coffee as these drinks include a substance called tannic acid which interferes with iron absorption, reducing it, so if you are a coffee or tea drinker you might want to be wary of this. Calcium is another mineral which happens to interfere with iron absorption, so be wary of that.

On the other hand, ascorbic acid, also known as vitamin C, has been shown to enhance the absorption of nonheme iron which is good news for vegetarians.

Iron supplementation is generally fine and will help you meet your iron requirements without having to source out lots of iron rich foods to eat. Liquid iron supplements are typically absorbed better than pills, but both are useful for runners and athletes alike.

Will you be more conscious of your iron intake as a runner? Or do you have it under control? Let me know down below!