Dietitian Confessions, Feature, Featured, Nutrition, sports nutrition

Fourth in a Four Part Series on Getting High: Nutrition Considerations at Altitude

Got iron? I am continually challenged by low iron storage (aka pre-anemic state). My first experience with low iron was during my high school running career when I decided that I didn’t like meat, not for any other reason than I preferred bread and pasta. Being the avid, OCD, calorie counter I was back then, I swapped protein calories for carbohydrate calories.

This of course was not smart but at sixteen,  it made  perfect sense. The most absorb-able source of iron of course is red meat. As my meat consumption decreased so did my iron status. This is important because iron is the critical mineral in transporting oxygen to muscles, and when muscles are running they use more of it. This little dietary stunt sent my long-distance running, low-iron-storing, menstruating  female body into declining athletic performance that cost me my entire senior year of competition and athletic scholarship.

The lesson was clear. Study nutrition and begin enjoying steak at least once in a while. Even now, as a meat eater and someone who knows that iron absorption from green leafy vegetables can increase when consumed with orange juice, I really have to work during training to keep iron levels out of the pre-anemic state.

The pre-anemic state is no big thing when the muscles aren’t demanding tons and tons of oxygen. A runner however, can feel the effect of low iron storage even before meeting clinical criteria for anemia. I have had to convince my doctor to test my ferritin levels (iron storage) despite not showing signs of anemia.

Any low iron state will be exaggerated at altitude because iron has the job of carrying the limited oxygen available around the body to the muscles. Getting a baseline blood test as training for a mountain objectives begins can allow time to adjust the diet and take a supplement if needed. It can take six to ten weeks of iron supplementation and increasing iron-rich foods to get stores back up.  There can be however, side effects of too much iron. Diets consisting of iron rich foods won’t likely put someone over the top but, before hitting the supplement bottle based on an assumption, get that test.

Running on low-iron felt to me like moving in slow motion beginning at about mile three of any run. It can feel a lot like over training, and it can be very discouraging to then increase training only to worsen performance. I found it very satisfying after running my first fifty kilometer trail race to discover my iron status was in the dumps. Why? Because I knew how to fix it. Get the test.