No Really, Get Your Iron Checked.

I’ll admit it.  I was mega-skeptical about this whole iron thing when it came up.  It’s one of those things where one person tells you about something and then you start hearing it all over.

The iron buzz!!  Get your iron checked!  Everyone is doing it!

It all started last year when I met HG during ‘cross.  On our first training ride together, she told me her own iron story.  She found out her levels were really low, started supplementing, and witnessed huge improvements. 

Wow, I thought to myself, I wish my iron was low.

I wrote off the possibility immediately because I am a voracious meat eater and a huge consumer of leafy greens like spinach and kale.  I also pack away more than my share of lentils and broccoli. I’m a purist.  In general, I feel like we should be able to get all the necessary vitamins and nutrients from our food if we eat well.

Iron? I got that nailed, man.

So I promptly forgot about it.  Then about a month ago, Georgia Gould blogged about finding out that her iron levels were low.  Like me, she believed she was in the clear because she was diligent about eating foods high in iron.  She found out on a fluke because she is in a UCI monitoring program that requires her to get blood tests a few times a year.

About that same time, my coach asked me if I’d ever had my iron checked.  I assured him that my iron levels were probably fine due to my immaculate iron-conscious diet.  :)

But he told me Georgia’s story and recommended that I get the blood work done anyway.  So I did.

And guess what?

Hi, my name is Heidi Swift and I am iron deficient.

My ferritin levels came back at 19.  Pretty low. 

There are varying opinions about what "normal" ferritin levels should be.  Some think around 35 for a normal (read: non-endurance athlete) person, but that is considered low for endurance athletes by most.  Coach Volk sent me a link to an interesting article on the effect of iron deficiency on endurance athletes.

60 is generally considered a better number, so I have some making up to do.  I’ve read around the internets a bit and it looks like it will take anywhere from 8 -12 weeks to get the levels where they should be.

So, what’s the plan?

Well, more red meat for one thing.  But in the interest of eating lean red meat, we’re probably talking about a lot of buffalo and venison. I’ll accompany this with lots of fruit high in vitamin C, which aids absorption.  (This is starting to sound like the Paleo Diet for Athletes, no?) 

I’ll also be kickin’ down some supplements asap.  Iron supplements are known for making people constipated (sweet!) and generally wreaking some havoc in bodies, so it may take some experimentation, but I will probably start with liquid iron (yum, pureed nails!) and go from there.  I’ll also probably pick up this multi-vitamin, which has been recommended to me.

So why is iron such a big deal?

Well, I’m no expert, so check the article from Coach Volk above or this (very oddly formatted) article from Velonews.

Among other things, it points out that:

  • Iron is an important component of hemoglobin, which transports oxygen in the blood.
  • Iron is an important component of myoglobin,which transports oxygen in the muscles.
  • Many muscle enzymes involved in metabolism require iron, and other iron compounds facilitate oxygen use at the cellular level.
  • Iron is also required for red blood cell production and is essential to maintaining a healthy immune system.

Red blood cell production? Hey, there’s a concept for an endurance athlete.

If you do go get checked, just ask for a full blood workup and be sure that they are checking your ferritin levels.  If you’re training your little cycling pants off every week and you come back with less than 50, you should probably make some dietary adjustments and/or think about supplementation.

Now go chew some nails, will ya?



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  1. I have found that stepping on nails and scrapping various body parts on sharp, rusty iron items helps, too. Try that.

  2. Oh. That kind of iron. When I read the headline I thought this was about some kind of upper body workout that combined the pressing of clothes with hoisting the hot, steaming appliance overhead.

  3. Okay ~ First Matt, now you.. as soon as 9am rolls around I’m calling the doc. Think I’ll ask about calcium / bone density as well. Anything else that should be checked from an endurance athlete perspective?

  4. Another oldie but goodie: cook on cast-iron pans. No, seriously, your food absorbs some of the iron from the pan and transfers it to your iron-deficient self.

    Unlike you, I’m sure that my iron levels are low. Sure, I eat unbelievable amounts of leafy greens, beans etc, but being veggie means that there’s really no way to avoid it. And I hate vitamins and supplements–I’m with you there. You should be able to get it all from food. :\

    Where did you get it checked? Just go to your general doctor?

  5. Yeah, just go to your primary care physician and ask for a full blood work up. It should be the kind where you have to fast for 14 hours before. I had to wait about 3 weeks for an appointment but it was worth it.

    Traci – Not sure if there are other things to look for but hemoglobin and ferritin are a good start! Hemoglobin is the measure they used for Matt – mine is relatively low as well, but ferritin will give you good information as well. Matt is going to ask for that one to be added to his test next time.

  6. heather g!

    awww… joining the iron deficiency club. supplements = constipation; eat your fiber because you will need it!

  7. Yeah, fiber and OJ help a lot with the Enough Iron problems.

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