Sierra, a high school distance runner, had always been a strong competitor. She consistently placed in the top three on her team in varsity cross country races. As a Nordic skier, gymnast, cyclist, and lacrosse player, she was known for her impressive endurance, toughness and stamina. However, during her junior year of cross country, Sierra began to experience a noticeable decline in her performance just as the postseason competition began to heat up. She was tired, felt short of breath during easy to moderate runs, and her race times were significantly slower than usual. In fact, she collapsed on two different occasions after zig-zagging and stumbling towards the finish line.

Initially, Sierra attributed her struggles to overtraining, lack of sleep, or lack of hydration- even though she knew had been careful to monitor all three areas closely. Her symptoms continued to worsen, so she and her parents decided to see a doctor. After a series of tests, Sierra was diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia, a condition where the body doesn’t have enough iron to produce sufficient healthy red blood cells.

Why Iron Matters for High School Distance Runners

High school distance runners push their bodies to the limit. They train long distances, run in challenging conditions, and compete fiercely against their peers. However, there is a hidden enemy that can sabotage even the most talented runner: iron deficiency.

To reach their full potential, they need to be fueled by the right nutrients, with iron being one of the most crucial. Iron plays a starring role in the oxygen transport system, acting as a key component of hemoglobin in red blood cells. Hemoglobin binds to and carries oxygen from the lungs to muscles, where it’s vital for energy production and peak performance. As coaches, we know how important aerobic efficiency is. But, all your training plans and hard work are lost if your athletes fail to maintain healthy iron levels.

For high school distance runners, the importance of iron cannot be overstated:

  • Boosts Endurance: Adequate iron levels enable efficient delivery of oxygen to muscles, allowing runners to train harder and run longer without fatigue.

  • Improves Recovery: Iron plays a crucial role in muscle repair and regeneration, helping runners recover faster and bounce back from intense training sessions.

  • Enhances Performance: When iron stores are optimal, runners experience increased energy levels, improved stamina, and ultimately, better race results.

  • Supports Overall Health: Iron deficiency can lead to various health problems, including anemia, weakened immunity, and decreased cognitive function.

Are You Getting Enough Iron?

While iron is necessary for everyone, high school distance runners are particularly susceptible to iron deficiency due to:

  • Increased Iron Losses: During intense training, iron is lost through sweat, urine, and red blood cell breakdown.

  • Dietary Challenges: Adolescent females, who make up a significant portion of distance runners, are at higher risk due to menstruation and dietary restrictions.

  • Limited Nutrient Absorption: Plant-based diets, although healthy, can make it more challenging to absorb iron. So, keep an eye on athletes that follow vegetarian and vegan diets.

Signs of Iron Deficiency in Runners

Keep an eye out for these potential signs of iron deficiency:

  • Fatigue and decreased energy levels

  • Reduced training capacity and performance

  • Pale skin and shortness of breath

  • Headaches and dizziness

  • Increased susceptibility to illness and injury

  • Abnormally rapid heartbeat and breathing after moderate workouts

Optimizing Your Iron Intake

Here’s how high school distance runners can ensure they’re getting enough iron:

  • Diet: Focus on iron-rich foods, including red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, lentils, tofu, fortified cereals, and dark leafy greens.

  • Vitamin C: Vitamin C enhances iron absorption, so pair iron-rich foods with citrus fruits, tomatoes, bell peppers, and broccoli.

  • Supplementation: Consider iron supplements, but consult a doctor or registered dietitian to determine the appropriate dosage.

  • Limit iron inhibitors: Avoid coffee, tea, and dairy products with meals, as they can hinder iron absorption.

By prioritizing iron intake, your high school distance runners can optimize their performance, boost their health, and reach their full potential. Remember, iron is an essential nutrient for peak performance, so inform your runners. And, make sure they get regular blood tests to monitor their iron (ferritin) levels each season.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *