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Are You Overtrained or Just Low on Iron?

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Quite possibly the most common nutritional deficiency for endurance athletes, especially women, is a lack of iron. A major problem with iron deficiency is it mostly goes undetected. A 1988 university study found that 45% of it’s female cross country runners had low iron levels compared to 78% of the male runners. In another study in 1983, 80% of female runners tested also had low iron levels.

Causes of iron deficiencies include:

Athletes most at risk of iron deficiencies include:

  • Runners
  • Women
  • Endurance athletes
  • Vegetarians
  • Heavy sweaters
  • Dieters
  • People who have recently donated blood

Symptoms of low iron include:

  • Recurring illness
  • Increased injuries
  • Loss of endurance
  • Hearing problems
  • Low power output
  • High HR when exercising
  • Chronic fatigue

The reason iron deficiencies go un-diagnosed so often is the symptoms are very similar to those of overtraining. The typical athlete treats the symptoms as overtraining, takes a break from training and returns feeling rejuvenated. However not long after resuming training, the athlete finds the same symptoms coming back again.

What should you do if you suspect low iron levels?

For starters you need to get a baseline blood test. This should be done in the off season or when your training volume is extremely low. You need to get your baseline levels for serum ferritin , reticulocytes, haptoglobin and hemoglobin.

When you suspect iron deficiency get another blood test. Be sure to fast before blood tests and don’t do any exercise 15 hours before hand. Your GP will help you understand your results. If your results show symptoms of iron deficiency, a follow up blood test may be required to confirm or rule out iron as the culprit. Your indicators may appear normal based on the reference range, but low compared to your baseline.

If your tests show and abnormally low iron count, you will need to increase iron intake in your diet. A great option is to have a dietician analyze your eating habits to determine sufficient iron intake. The RDA for women is 15mg a day and 10mg a day for men. Endurance athletes should get more.

A typical American diet contains roughly 6mg of iron per 1000 calories consumed. This means that women who restrict their calorie intake to 2000 a day can very easily become iron deficient. Particularly if they are also training.

Dietary iron come in 2 forms, heme and non-heme.

Heme is from animals and non-heme is from plants. A very small amount of iron consumed is actually absorbed by the body. However heme iron absorbs better at roughly 15% opposed to non-heme where only about 5% is absorbed by the body.

Therefor the most effective way to boost iron is by eating meat, especially red meat.

Plant sources of iron include:

  • Raisins
  • Dates
  • Lima Beans
  • Broccoli
  • Soy Beans
  • Leafy Green Vegetables
  • Dried Fruits
  • Baked Beans
  • Baked Potatoes
  • Brussels Sprouts

Be wary that iron absorption of the above mentioned sources is decreased if eaten with the following:

  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Wheat
  • Cereal
  • Egg Yolk

Don’t use iron supplements without the approval from your GP. Some people can get a condition called Hemochromatosis. This is an iron overload and is marked by toxic deposits in the skin, liver and joints. Other symptoms for excessive iron actually mimic those of low iron ironically enough.

Be wary that the 2nd leading cause of poisoning children is actually by iron supplements.  The leading cause is Aspirin.

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