The fact that long-distance running is hard on the body is hardly a novel idea. Of course, by “hard”, I do not mean “detrimental.” Let’s nip the “running is hard on your knees” people in the bud right now. I mean it can exact a toll from you but one that pays you back in dividends later, if you simply take care of yourself. Even if you are doing things right, however, there are many things we aren’t even aware we are doing wrong which can make “taking care of yourself” difficult. An example of this, which has been brought to my attention recently, revolves around problems with iron.

Iron itself is important for us endurance athletes as it binds to oxygen, which is then circulated through the lungs and to the muscles we use to power us. The downside of this is that our bodies are rather inefficient in absorbing the iron we ingest (only about 15%), with distance runners trying their best to deplete even that 15% nearly every time they go for a long hard run. The case of iron loss is even more severe with female runners, due to their genetic make-up.

Even more common than iron deficiency is iron depletion from low ferritin stores. A runner I know recently went through a long bout of declining performances, heavy legs, muscular tightness and a loss of motivation. As conditions worsened, she gave up running completely. Initial tests made her and her doctors think that something very sinister was afoot with even talk of Parkinson’s. Fortunately, further tests revealed she was simply having a hard time digesting iron and her stores were at ridiculously low levels. Added to that was the fact she was gluten intolerant. So even if she had been paying attention to her iron in a way most of us might, chances are she wasn’t getting enough. As she was trying to get her iron through cereals and the like (which do not traditionally have the best type of iron digested by the body) she was putting her body through tough spots without even knowing it.

So she changed her diet, added beef (known to be one of the most easily digestible iron sources out there) and has run some of the fastest times of her life this year. This string of improved races includes a half-marathon personal best and taking second place in a marathon while almost setting a personal best in the process as well. She told me how, as a cross-country coach, she should have been a little more aware of the possibility of low ferritin stores in herself. Regardless, she now makes sure all of her athletes get tested rather frequently, not just for low iron but for low ferritin stores as well, just to head off potential anemia at the pass.