On the Importance of Iron


When I was little, I was a very picky eater. I pretty much hated all vegetables except lima beans (which I would eat by the bowlful at my grandpa’s house) but neither did I particularly care for sugary items. My mom has anecdotally noted that I thought the Sweet tarts candy that I took home from preschool Halloween was extremely gross. However, at 3, I did love hamburgers. When I went on a trip to Disneyland with my mom, my mom also likes to remind me that all I ordered anywhere was hamburgers. Perhaps my 3-year old self was on to something. (An aside: I also liked to eat the hamburgers without the accompanying bun and rip them up and dip them in ketchup… 3-year old Ann evidently invented the “paleo diet” too, but I would like to recommend hamburgers themselves more than my toddler self’s method here. It is probably good that some things have changed.)

As I am a yoga teacher, people often assume I do not eat meat. I occasionally get out-of-the-blue questions like “are you vegan?”– this is honestly a little annoying since it assumes that meat eaters are all chubby or otherwise unhealthy. I usually answer the vegan inquiry with something like surprise and “oh no, hamburgers are one of my favorite foods.” I have found firsthand that if I do yoga, I run faster, but the same also totally goes for hamburgers. I fully understand that some people avoid meat for the love of animals. (The literary voice in my head is now echoing with the voice of Jean from August: Osage County, and how she is a vegetarian because eating murdered animals is eating their fear.) I myself won’t eat veal because I’d rather the baby lambs live long lives, and I do try to eat free-range, organic whenever possible. That said, hamburgers do taste REALLY AWESOME, and I have found that they help my body function in a manner far superior to a meatless one.  

Above, the good old days at ND: College running is awesome and intense. Find a way to eat good hamburgers!

Runners need iron, and the best form of iron is red meat. This blog is a compendium of the knowledge I accumulated from "research" (my own personal experience) during my Notre Dame running years and since then, in addition to advice from coaches and teammates—I say this just so you know I won’t be linking you to articles touting meat-eating benefits for this entire post. Instead, here are the iron-absorbing tips that I have found useful to my own running. These are specifics that I wish I had known or taken seriously before my running career picked up!

Thus, here you are:

1.       Iron comes in two forms: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is the iron found in meat—this is what is most easily absorbed by the body. Non-heme iron is plant-based and less easily absorbed. What you also need to know is that iron absorption is blocked by specific other components commonly found in foods: the most common are calcium, phytates, tannins, and fiber. People will often advise you to eat spinach or leafy greens since they are high in iron, but this is not especially helpful since the phytates in these vegetables block iron absorption. You can help iron absorption with vitamin C, so when you are eating greenery in the hopes of absorbing iron, pair it with some orange juice or, the most compact vitamin C bomb of all, a kiwi or two. Tannins are found in coffee and black tea, so skip your caffeine source when having the burger.

2.       Calcium really DOES block iron absorption. So does fiber! I became iron-deficient WHILE TAKING AN IRON SUPPLEMENT during my junior year of cross country because I was having yogurt as my bedtime snack, along with whole-grain cereal. Bad, bad idea. Just because you’re taking an iron supplement doesn’t mean you can eat calcium all day long and expect to get away with it.

3.       Conditions that make you more likely to become iron deficient (i.e. when you should be especially careful to ingest enough red meat):

a.       Periods of high intensity training. Unsurprisingly, my junior year iron deficiency was also preceded by a big uptake in training volume over the summer months. If you’re stressing your body a greater amount, you’re using more iron.

b.      Training in the heat. 90% of the cases of iron-deficiency that either I had or my college teammates had were during cross country, and very rarely during indoor or outdoor track. I can only explain this by the heat acting as another element stressing your body and helping you to use up the iron.

c.       You are just genetically prone to using up more iron. Some of my teammates always had ferritin levels measuring in the 60s! My senior year I took prescription iron AND liquid iron and my ferritin was still something like 28.

4.       Miscellaneous iron tips: When looking for iron in cereals, look for “reduced iron”—this is more easily absorbed.  I am still a slightly picky eater in that I don’t like cereal with milk….remember that milk has calcium so this might not be your best bet for iron. However, dark chocolate (the high percentage, good stuff) is actually very high in iron! I ran super fast at the Tufts 10k a couple years back when I was consuming a fairly hefty size Endangered Species brand dark chocolate bar pretty much every day.

5.       Take your iron at nighttime or dinnertime. My college coach told me this and I could never find it in writing anywhere else, but I believe it. Get your calcium in during the morning hours.

6.       Good reliable iron supplements:

a.       Liquid iron. I found this very helpful in college and just got it from the pharmacy. Beware: it can stain your teeth. You may want to drink it with a straw even if it seems silly to be using a straw for a very small amount of liquid (don't overdose on it either!!).

b.      Hemaplex. Best iron supplement out there since it contains a bunch of helpful B vitamins to aid blood health too. Nature’s Best should just go ahead and sponsor me because I love this product. I made sure to stock up before I posted this just in case everyone rushes out to buy it now. (The Vitamin Shoppe carries it.)

c.       Red meat. There’s just no replacement for it. You can have all the iron supplements in the world but you need to eat meat if you’re having iron absorption issues. Case one in point: When I was first ever iron deficient in college, I wasn’t having hardly any red meat since I didn’t like what the dining hall served.  Dining hall red meat can be a little sketch, and the chicken seemed more trustworthy so I stuck to that. The day I found out my iron was low I went to the Morris Inn—the only on-campus hotel at ND—and ordered myself a large size strip steak to-go. I know this isn’t supposed to be possible since it takes about two weeks to get your iron back up, but I actually felt a good bit better already the next day. (Part of this was probably mental relief—“my problem will be solved!  I will have energy!”—but I KNOW I physically felt better already too. I was not dropped 10 minutes into a run like I had been previously.) When your body is craving iron, it will more readily absorb it.

Case two: I’ve told my poor boyfriend this story probably a hundred times, so now you all get to hear it too. During my last year of ND, during my MA, I was out of eligibility and training instead with my friend Micki. Micki was the best and totally got me through what otherwise would have been an impossible, depressing, weird year of being at Notre Dame with no cross country or track eligibility. Micki ran for UNC Asheville and was something around a 9:30 3k girl, and when we decided to amp up our regular runs into actual workouts, she was totally kicking my butt. I could hang for the first interval or two, but then I died….not just a slow fade-off, but once I was done, I was DONE. (This is what being iron deficient feels like—any attempt at sprinting will likely be miserable and the end of your workouts will just not be there.) After two weeks or so of this, I figured my iron was maybe on the lower side. (I had ramped my mileage up to unprecedented levels in the low 70s.) I went out to Target, got a couple 6-packs of organic frozen hamburgers, and proceeded to have a hamburger for both lunch and dinner. (If you didn’t figure this out yet: I have a tendency to go full-throttle into things.) The next day I did a workout and was somehow ahead of Micki. Hamburgers are magic, and that’s why I bought this amazing and unnecessary sweatshirt with them printed all over them (see left).


7.       Ways to tell that you are low in iron: (from my own experience)

a.       You planned on doing strides at the end of your run and this is the LAST POSSIBLE thing you want to do because it seems like it will take gallons of energy that you don’t have.

b.      You will get dropped after the first third or so of every workout or regular run. At the beginning, you will feel totally normal, but suddenly you will be incapable of going even remotely fast.

c.       If you try to race, your breathing will feel fine but your brain will not appear to be communicating with your legs.  You will tell your legs to go and they will seemingly have no power. You will not be out of breath at the end but your legs could not have gone any faster no matter how hard you tried.

d.     The way to actually tell: you get your ferritin tested and it measures below a 20 or so.

Just like every BODY is different in yoga and running, every BODY is also different with iron absorption and usage. Certain people are definitely more prone to be deficient in iron. My mom has had iron-deficiency anemia so I know it runs in my family. Different bodies can react quite differently on varying levels of ferritin. Ferritin is an intracellular protein that stores and releases iron, and measuring it is a good indicator of how your iron levels are doing. During my junior year of college, when I was tested at a 17 for my ferritin, I could not get my bike cruiser up a very short hill near the Architecture Building at Notre Dame—I literally had to get off my bike and walk it up the hill and that’s when I knew something was VERY amiss. I could run at a regular pace for about 15 minutes of a group run and then I reliably got dropped into oblivion.  At a 17, I felt AWFUL. Alternatively I had certain teammates who when they were low, measured at under a 10. (I am pretty sure that at that level I would not be able to get out of bed, let alone make it to practice.) The point is, under a 25 or so is still low, and you might not need your iron in the 5-10 range to feel the effects of not having enough.

In summary: do yoga, eat hamburgers, run faster.  I don't think you need to eat a hamburger every day, but having at least one per week is a very good idea during training.

Ann Mazur2 Comments