Iron deficiency anemia is a common cause of fatigue in athletes. While diagnosing iron deficiency anemia itself is relatively easy, the more challenging aspect is discovering why a person suffers from runner’s anemia in the first place.
Low iron diets (vegan, vegetarian) are the most common cause for iron deficiency. Women with heavy menstrual bleeding can sometimes become anemic from this as well (and this is made worse with low iron diets!) Otherwise, the body really has no direct avenue for iron loss, other than negligible amounts lost in the course of cell shedding from the GI (gut) and genitourinary (urinary) tracts.
However, athletes are subject to a more insidious form of iron loss known as ‘foot strike hemolysis’ - sometimes known as runner’s anemia. This occurs when red blood cells are subsequently destroyed as they pass through the feet from the repetitive pounding of running. Of course, it takes a lot of running for this to happen, and a while to manifest.
Runners aren’t the only athletes susceptible to exercise induced hemolysis (destruction of red blood cells). This form of anemia has also been reported in rowers, swimmers and weight lifters, too.
However, runners typically wind up with about four times the amount of red blood cell destruction that other athletes do.
Footstrike anemia occurs most often in high mileage runners - or, in athletes whose training volume increases to a point where red cell production mechanisms are overwhelmed by training - think ‘two a day’ runs, marathoners and ultra runners - this is the group at greatest risk for foot strike hemolysis, sometimes referred to as hell strike hemolysis induced anemia.
So, how do we prevent foot strike hemolysis from happening?
One of the first, most obvious places is to look at your footwear - are your shoes worn out and compressed (more than 250-300 miles on them, typically)? Be sure to monitor your shoe's wear and tear and monitor the mileage on them - one of the best things you can do to decrease risk of injury (including foot strike hemolysis) is to maintain a good pair of running shoes.
The next most important place to look is the surface on which you run. Please, please tell me you don’t run on concrete! It’s absolutely the worst surface to run on and will absolutely increase your risk of developing runner’s anemia!. In fact, concrete is roughly 50 times harder than asphalt (the stuff most streets are made of).
I would tell you to run in the road but we’d get in trouble for giving you dangerous advice! - but in all seriousness, running on asphalt is much, much better for your body and will greatly decrease the amount of pounding on your body, plus of course your red blood cells.
The next best place to run is dirt, of course as it’s a lot softer than asphalt. I realize not everyone has these options, so do what you can. And if you can’t run anywhere else than on concrete, it’s important to monitor and maintain your iron and red blood cell (RBC) numbers.
If you’re a high mileage runner, or someone who has a history of anemia, you need to check iron and RBC numbers every 6 months. It’s a simple, inexpensive test to do – let your doctor know your history, and that you’re a high mileage runner and make sure you get this test done. Don’t get behind with this!
Once you’ve become anemic, it’s a deep hole to dig yourself out of – plan on at least 3 months until you feel ‘right’ again. That’s how long it takes your body to manufacture enough red cells to normal levels. It’s far easier to prevent foot strike anemia than to treat it - it’s often an insidious condition that a runner won’t notice until they’re feeling really poorly.
If you trend toward low iron, it’s ok to use an iron supplement judiciously. Don’t wait until your lab numbers show actual anemia before you start treating it – remember the idea here is to have adequate iron stores in your body, so it can offset any extra iron loss from foot striking, your diet, or menstrual status.
You do need to be careful with iron – it should only be supplemented under a physician’s supervision and with lab testing to monitor whether you need it or not. More is definitely not better here! Excess iron can be stored, leading to toxicity and widespread inflammation.
And as always, keep iron supplements in a safe place - it’s toxic and a common cause of death by overdose in little kids.
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