Everything you need to know about iron as a runner

Kate Percy is one of our experts in the Run Mummy Run Community Run Club in association with ASICS, covering everything nutrition. These blogs are exclusive to RMR CRC members for a few months before being made public, so if you do want to get expert advice on your running, as well as a training sessions, expert Q&As, access to exclusive kit and much more, join the club todayIn this post, Kate explains what iron is and why it’s important for us as runners. 

Exhausted after your run, or finding it hard to even muster up enough motivation for a run? Short of breath even running up the stairs? Feeling tired and washed out?

This may be your body simply crying out for a warm bath and an early night. But if you exercise regularly, these may very well be symptoms of low iron stores.

What is iron?

Iron is essential to keep our bodies functioning at best. It makes haemoglobin, which is responsible for picking up the oxygen breathed into our lungs and for transporting it through the blood stream to every cell in our body, to our brain, to our muscles. We also need iron for normal energy metabolism and for our immune system. Miss out on enough iron and our energy levels plummet; we become tired, weak and lethargic, exercise becomes more difficult and we fail to function on all cylinders.

National Survey Data used by the British Nutrition Foundation shows that 25% of women in Britain have a low intake of iron, and this is as high as 50% in 15-18 year old girls (below 8mg/day). Females between the ages of 11 and 50 need to include a significantly higher amount of iron in their diets than their male counterparts, predominantly because they need to replenish iron lost through menstruation. The recommended iron intake for pre-menopausal women is 14.8mg, whereas for boys aged 11-18 it is 11.3mg and for men only 8.7mg.

The iron intake of women who exercise regularly needs to be even higher. Regular aerobic workouts tend to deplete iron stores through the loss of sweat, physical stress, muscular damage and the shifting of blood plasma. During high-impact activities such as running or aerobics, iron is lost as red blood cells break apart from the repetitive pounding of feet and sometimes through gastro-intestinal bleeding caused by the repeated jarring of the body. And it is not just the top-class female athletes of this world who need to be vigilant, as even the cumulative effect of moderate workouts can lead to iron deficiency.

Women who diet and exercise, and especially teenage girls, need to be aware of the actual nutrients there are in the calories they do eat.

Iron deficiency is a real problem with women, especially young athletes, who combine regular hard exercise with a restricted calorie diet or with a vegan diet. This, of course, wreaks havoc on the daily intake of all the micronutrients, not just iron, but also nutrients such as calcium, and B vitamins, which are so essential for general overall health and wellbeing.

How to take in enough iron

Iron occurs in two main forms: haem and non-haem.

Heme iron

Heme iron is more readily absorbed by the body and is found in animal protein such as red meat, offal, fish and dark meat poultry. Lean steak, venison and shellfish such as clams, mussels, scallops and oysters are really high in heme iron. If money is no object, ½ dozen oysters before your meal will really increase your iron intake, but perhaps that’s not particularly practical or desirable for most of us! Spaghetti with clams or mussels, parsley and garlic is a balanced and low-fat meal with plenty of iron and carbs to improve that next workout. Also venison steak: it’s the ultimate iron-rich meat and available in most supermarkets. Low in fat, you can cook it as you would a fillet steak and serve it with some steamed greens, broccoli or cavolo nero. Offal is also high in heme iron. It’s cheap, but not particularly on trend at the moment! Chicken livers are super cheap. Try them in a warm salad with watercress, with a honey and Dijon mustard dressing.

You may have difficulty tempting your teenage daughter with these suggestions; instead you could try a dish of prawns in chilli and garlic butter with a simple rocket salad and some wholemeal bread to mop up the sauce.

Non-heme iron

Non-heme iron is found in foods such as dark green, leafy vegetables, dried fruits, whole grains, lentils and pulses, nuts, seeds, beans and eggs. It is less easily absorbed by the body than heme iron.

For those who eat little or no meat avoiding tannin (mainly in tea and coffee) helps iron absorption. Concentrate on consuming food and drink containing ‘iron enhancing’ vitamin C. At breakfast, try to substitute your cup of tea with half a grapefruit or a glass of juice. Have this with some iron-enriched cereal or wholegrain toast, or add strawberries and molasses to your porridge. Concentrate on combining vitamin C-rich food with your main meal – lentil dahl with fresh ginger and heaps of coriander, fragrant wholemeal rice and toasted almonds, spinach salad with pancetta and toasted walnuts, chickpea falafel, served with a spicy yoghurt sauce and a wedge of lemon or just a simple mushroom omelette with a green side salad.

My new baking mixes are a great source of iron and B-vitamins. The savoury pancakes for breakfast or after a long run go down really well! Or try the enriched pizza base for an extra boost.

In terms of snacks, you’ll be pleased to know that dark chocolate, chocolate coated tiffinKate Percy’s Go Bites, rich fruit cake and dates are all sources of iron 😊

If you are worried that you might be anaemic, please see your GP for a simple blood test before taking supplements.

About Kate

Hello everyone! It’s a great privilege to have been invited by Run Mummy Run to inspire you with all things food and nutrition! In everything I do, whether it’s my food products, cookbooks or educational resources, my mission is to help you discover what I call #enerjoy through what you eat; that’s great taste, good energy, vitality and happiness. I hope you enjoy my tips and recipes over the coming year. And I hope they bring you #enerjoy!

Follow Kate on Facebook and Instagram @katepercys or check out Kate’s shop for cookbookshealthy snack products (Kate Percy’s Go Bites), baking kits  (gluten free, vegan pizza base, savoury pancake and dough balls kits).

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