A few weeks ago, I started to have some workouts with weird symptoms. I struggled to finish long runs at paces that were usually manageable. My power started to tank at the end of long bike rides. I wasn’t seeing any improvement in times at the track. Chalking it up to work stress and travel stress, I soldiered on. But after Rev3 Williamsburg, I knew something was wrong. On the bike, my heart rate was sky high but my power was 30 Watts lower than normal. On the run, my pace was almost 90 seconds per mile slower than usual. And on top of the harder effort, my body just felt wrong. I remember during the race thinking “something is not right”. As soon as I got back home, I scheduled an appointment with my doctor, and we decided to get some blood work done to investigate.
The result? Low ferritin levels (and bottom-of-the-barrel hormone levels, but that is for another post). Ferritin measures your iron stores, so low ferritin means your body is losing iron. Normal ranges of ferritin are 50 to 350 for non-athletes and 30-60 for women athletes. My level? 10.
I consider low ferritin a sneaky problem for athletes. Why sneaky? Low ferritin is not anemia, and as such is harder to notice without blood tests. When you are anemic, your hemoglobin and hematocrit are low and you generally feel lethargic all the time. With an iron deficiency (which is what you have when your ferritin is low), you generally feel great but may only notice problems when you’re training, especially towards the end of long efforts. It may feel harder to maintain a specific pace or you may start performing worse than before.
What’s even worse is that low ferritin can happen even if you eat healthy. I consider myself the kale queen. I regularly eat spinach and large slabs of beef. If I were a “normal” person my iron levels would be sky-high. But the fact is I’m not normal. I’m an athlete. And for some athletes, despite eating all the dark greens and beef in the world, their bodies break down iron faster than they can put it back in. How does this happen?
There are three main ways runners lose iron (and one special way for women). The first is through foot strike hemolysis. As weird as it sounds, it’s true: your body physically breaks down red blood cells from the impact of running. The second is from sweating. Your body actually secretes a tiny amount of iron in sweat, but if you do long efforts in hot conditions you can actually lose a substantial amount of iron. The third is loss through the GI system. Some runners lose minor amounts of iron through the stomach or intestines. Again, over time these small amounts can add up to be quite significant. And the fourth (special for all you ladies out there) is through menstruation.
So what’s a runner to do to maintain high levels of ferritin? First, go get yourself tested. Determine where your iron levels are and if you need to boost your iron. If you do need to boost your iron, dietary sources won’t be enough. They can help, but they won’t be enough. I was lucky enough to find a liquid iron supplement at my local pharmacy and I take it each day mixed in a glass of orange juice (since Vitamin C aids in iron absorption).
I’m also making a conscious effort to consume more iron rich foods. There’s always the old standby like dark greens and beef
But did you know that you can also get iron from Blackstrap molasses? I mix it into my oatmeal.
And the winner, hands-down, for high iron content is actually in clams. I found canned clams and Trader Joes and have been working them into pasta sauces.
I’m now a week into my iron supplementation, and have been told that it may take three weeks before my iron stores start to increase and I see an improvement in training. In the meantime, I’m trying to keep a realistic view of my training. I’m still training at a high volume, but have thrown paces and power out the window. This week I started my official 140.6 training for Cedar Point, so I did a 90 mile ride on Saturday and a 16 mile ride on Sunday. To avoid feeling awful at the finish, I adopted a “git-r-done” attitude and powered through both at slow paces. It’s hard to be patient. On one hand I feel the pressure of “Cedar Point is 7 weeks away!” and on the other I feel the pressure of “you dumbass you need to let your body restore itself.” I just keep trying to reassure myself that the old Frayed Laces will eventually return. In the meantime, I’ll just keep eating molasses and clams.