I have a history of iron deficiency anemia (anemia can be caused by different things, and this was news to me recently…so that’s why I’m specifying the cause). When I was pregnant with my daughter in 2014, I almost passed out in the shower and didn’t know why. A trip to the OB found the cause: low iron.
When I was pregnant with Michael, levels were also low, but just a bit. It was enough to take care of with the right diet, and thankfully, I was able to eat a large variety of foods during that pregnancy (unlike the other).
With Gracie, I stopped taking the supplement after she was born. With Michael, the problem became a lot worse. Managing it has been challenging.
If you don’t like to hear women talk about losing blood in a variety of ways, press the “X” at the top right of your browser. Otherwise, buckle up.
When I left the hospital with my new baby in March, I left with a prescription for ferrous sulfate, a time released iron pill. My doctor told me I should be able to get away with taking it just a few times per week. The bottle contained 30 pills, and I took all of them. At the time, I didn’t notice that there was supposed to be 70 pills, not 30. So, I stopped taking iron supplements altogether because I thought I could stop when the bottle was empty (seems logical). I guess my insurance doesn’t cover anything over 30 days (who knew?!).
Time went on and I noticed that even though I was training smarter and harder, I reached a point where things started moving backwards and it was extremely frustrating. I struggled to get under 12 minutes per mile, and I had to take a ton of walk breaks just to make it happen. I felt pretty defeated, if I’m honest.
I began sleeping for nearly 12 hours per night only to wake up exhausted. If I took a nap, it didn’t help. Those who know me know that I am typically a tea drinker with maybe one cup of coffee per day – and I was up to half a pot of coffee but felt exhausted beyond belief. I still didn’t realize what was happening.
Finally, I had an unusually late and heavy period. It was after it ended that I felt pulled completely under by this iron deficiency that I had yet to discover. I truly felt like I couldn’t “recover” and that made no sense – it’s a period; not WWII. Nonetheless, I began to feel strong symptoms of depression and anxiety, and I started to become pale and engage in overeating just trying to help myself feel more energized. When someone left me alone with the baby, I cried because I felt like I didn’t have enough strength to take care of him if he needed something.
Four mile runs turned into three mile runs; three mile runs turned into two mile runs; two mile runs turned into “I can’t run;” “I can’t run” turned into “I’m too dizzy to do anything at all.”
Finally, my stepmother suggested I look into my iron levels. I examined the pill bottle and found I was forty pills short of what my OB prescribed. No wonder I felt how I felt. I immediately refilled and began taking them, and after about a week, I started to feel like a normal person again.
The first symptoms to disappear were the dizziness and brain fog/depression-like symptoms. I started to feel more energized and like I could actually handle the day-to-day. I was able to lay down without constant dizzy spells.
Still, it’s taken over a week for me to regain most of my strength. I legit don’t think I have felt tired in a week, and it’s not because I have an ideal life – it’s because this kind of tired feelings like NOTHING compared to the fatigue from iron deficiency!
So, what does it mean to “manage” it as a runner? It means a few things. Note that the following should not be taken as medical advice and is my opinion from personal experiences. While you can purchase iron supplements over the counter, high levels of iron can cause serious health problems. You should work with your healthcare provider before starting and altering any type of medication or supplement, including iron.
Give your body more time to recover as you build your iron stores back up. This is essential. There are times to worry about your training plan and there are times you tell your body to “suck it up” and push through the rest of your run. When you are readjusting from an iron deficiency, you should play it safe. Seriously, you should stop: Red blood cells carry oxygen. Low iron means low red blood cell counts. Oxygen is transported less efficiently, and that means that you aren’t simply out of breath because you’re running hard – but because of low iron. It’s real, so don’t beat yourself up about it.
Eat lean proteins and veggies that contain high iron. I prefer lean cuts of red meat, but there are a lot of others. Leafy greens are some of the best vegetables you can eat when you’re rebuilding your iron stores. One of my favorite iron-rich meals is a lean cut of steak with a side of fresh spinach sauteed with garlic & EVOO. PS: I’m hungry now. Seeds also carry a lot of iron!
Prepare to deal with some less-than-pleasant symptoms. Iron pills, especially the slow release ones, can wreck your system. Iron apparently works best when taken on an empty stomach, but it also completely tears your stomach up. I prefer a full stomach, and the pharmacist told me taking it with a citrus drink (like orange juice) will help. There are some other restrictions regarding other OTCs like antacids, so it’s best to talk to your pharmacist about it. As a runner, have your bathroom stops planned on your routes – trust me.
Iron supplements have been a lifesaver for me. My paces have begun to increase and I’m not huffing and puffing after a 12/minute mile – it just didn’t make any sense to me! I know it can be hard to tell if you’re tired because of life (kids, work, etc.) or because of something like this. A simple blood test will help.