Running With Anaemia

Okay so what is iron deficiency anaemia?

Quite simply, iron deficiency anaemia (anemia – US spelling) is a condition where a lack of iron in the body leads to a reduction in the number of red blood cells.


According to iron deficiency anaemia is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies among female athletes. They state-“Iron, a trace element in the body, is involved in the function of the immune system and energy production system, but its most critical role is in getting oxygen to your muscles. Iron is a major component of haemoglobin, the transport agent for oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. It is also present in muscles in the form of haemoglobin (hemoglobin- US spelling), the protein that extracts oxygen from haemoglobin molecules. For metabolism and transport of oxygen to function properly, an adequate level of iron must be available. This is especially true during growth and physical activity.”

So in short, you need iron to run.

A few years ago, I wasn’t an athlete-at all. I rarely exercised and I was a bit overweight. I grew paler than usual (I’ve always been pale) and I noticed my headaches which I have always had become more frequent. When I brushed my hair, there was more hair in my hairbrush than usual and especially when I was washing my hair in shower. My fingers were turning white in the cold (even though I’m not usually one to feel the cold) and I was  dizzy and tired – a lot. Begrudgingly I went to the doctor (I rarely like wasting doctor’s time). After a blood test he confirmed that I had iron deficiency anaemia and low blood pressure. Basically, my blood wasn’t producing enough red blood cells which carried the oxygen round my body, causing me to be tired, pale, out of breath and dizzy. He said I needed to up my intake of iron through my diet or take supplements. So he prescribed me some that I took….. when I remembered……. Fast forward three years to the fitter and healthier me. I became a vegetarian (a moral choice not a health one) and I lost a stone through running which I started doing around 3 times a week, increasing my kilometres gradually.


Dizziness came back.

Everything was going fine and I felt great – but then I fainted at work. I visited the doctor again (the only time since the time before) who asked whether I was taking my supplements  – I hadn’t….. They played around with my stomach (and bowel movements – yuck) and I preferred not taking them – but I was feeling fine since I had been eating more iron packed food instead.

So What’s up Doc

The doc explained that my diet was fine and I was supplementing well – but for a runner it wasn’t enough. He explained that the extra iron in my food was making up for the iron I already lacked but then there wasn’t enough left for my body when I exercised. This was why I sometimes felt slow and sluggish and unable to run 5k when last week I ran 8km with no problem. One of the body’s main jobs while running is to transport oxygen. My oxygen is carried through the blood by the pigment of red blood cells, which is known as the haemoglobin. If your haemoglobin is low, transporting oxygen will become more difficult and will have a negative impact on your ability to move that oxygen around. This causes my blood pressure to be low leading to the fainting episode (embarrassing when you are work).

Risks being a runner

According to “If you are a runner, you are at a higher risk for anaemia. Females and adolescent endurance athletes are at higher risk for anaemia. Runners work up a good sweat, and you can lose iron through your sweat. Blood can also be lost in urine, lowering iron levels. Runners also may take aspirin or anti-inflammatory drugs to relieve muscle soreness after a vigorous run, and these drugs reduce iron absorption in the body.” This is not to say that all runners will develop a deficiency –  you are just at a higher risk especially without a balanced diet of iron. If you are worried – see a doctor. Sometimes overdosing on certain vitamins can be harmful when you don’t need them.


Absorbing iron is also harder than you think. For example iron will not absorb along side caffeine. So it’s best to drink your morning coffee or tea an hour before or after your breakfast. (Don’t worry, your countless avocado on sourdough toast won’t be completely wasted on Instagram). Vitamin C helps absorb iron so keep that in mind during the day.

I enjoy running, but sometime it’s hard for me. For one, I already lacked iron prior to starting running and two I’m a vegetarian so my diet lacks it anyway. I don’t want to give up running (or eat meat) as it’s part of my lifestyle now, and has helped me lose weight. Instead, I try to do is have iron in my breakfast with an orange an hour later to help this absorb. If I know that it’s a day for running, then I will have green veg in my lunch or a green smoothie in the afternoon. My dinner usually has kale or green beans in it and I try to have caffeine when I’m not eating to avoid it slowing down the iron absorption.


 Set backs

There are times when I don’t stick to it for whatever reason. Like last week when I was away travelling for work. I ate well but didn’t have the luxury of having my smoothie maker or the never-ending supply of green veg. When I tried running the following week, my legs felt heavy and I felt slow even on a flat route. I’ve put on a few pounds and have had a craving for wine which I’ve given in to (on week nights!) This has set me back but I let myself do it. What I should’ve done was get back into my iron diet as soon as I got back and took my running slowly – and finally not give into my wine craving! (Even when I really want to!) Another option would be to take iron supplements when I’m away so this wouldn’t have happened in the first place. Now I’m aware of this, I will hopefully not do this next time I am away…… hopefully.

I hope this helps someone else out there who either has anaemia, or has developed it as a runner.

Of course I am not a doctor, or a nutritionist. This is just my opinion and experience only. If you are a vegetarian or thinking about vegetarianism, don’t listen to people who say you won’t get enough iron in your diet. It’s not just in meat. Google it! You will be surprised. Don’t let being anaemic restrict you from running. It is harder (trust me) but it’s rewarding when you do it properly!


Good luck!




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