Anemia and the Endurance Athlete

Anemia and the Endurance Athlete

Winter is a time for rebuilding your base and gaining control over your post-holiday diet. Perhaps many of you have filled out your goals for the 2010 triathlon season. How many of you have had your blood tested post race season? Do you know which vitamins and minerals you are lacking? As part of the kick-off to 2010, have you been topping off your nutrient stores? Having just battled a bout of anemia myself, I recognize the importance of staying ahead of the game. Just like any potential injury, if you don’t follow preventive care measures and monitor the situation, you are more susceptible to problems. Anemia is no different. By definition, anemia is when one’s hemoglobin levels fall below what is normal for that individual’s age and sex, thus resulting in a lack of oxygen carried by the blood. Perhaps the most commonly known culprit for anemia is an iron deficiency in the body. In this case, there is not enough iron to make adequate hemoglobin, the carrier of oxygen. Another cause for anemia is a B-12/folate deficiency which prevents red blood cells from replicating quickly enough.

A pseudoanemia, commonly found among runners, is appropriately called footstrike anemia (or hemolysis). According to a study published in the Journal of American Medical Association(JAMA), footstrike anemia is “caused by the pounding of the feet on pavement…Symptoms include an increase in plasma with disintegration of red blood cells, and in long-distance runners, gastrointestinal blood loss.” When the female patient in J.A.M.A.’s study stopped running for four weeks, per doctors’ orders, her red cell volume significantly increased.

It is advised that people not self-diagnose their condition and start taking supplements, but rather get a blood test and a doctor’s recommendation. Effects of iron-deficiency anemia include the following: extreme fatigue, nausea after aerobic activity, ice craving, and (probably what you are most alert to) a decline in athletic performance. Following a good diet (eating plenty of meat and poultry, ingesting plenty of vitamin-C sources, and avoiding coffee and tea which inhibit iron uptake) is an excellent way to stay on top of the issue. However, if you are already feeling the effects of iron-deficiency anemia, you should seek the advice of a doctor. Once your iron stores have dropped too low, eating a huge spinach salad isn’t going to boost your performance back to where it was.
On a personal note, I had my blood tested in November (a full year after my Ironman…bad choice!) and discovered that my hematocrit levels were too low. My decision to get my blood tested was a result of enduring a very painful Chicago Marathon (due to extreme low energy) and a loss of breath when running what I used to consider simple hills. I have found that taking a Hemaplex tablet once a day in the evening with a cup of herbal tea has boosted my energy. It contains 500 mcg of vitamin B-12, 85 mg of iron as an amino acid chelate (a complex more easily absorbed by the digestive track) and the vitamin C (300 mg) you need for the iron absorption. I have started cooking red meat again and actually find that I crave it once it’s in front of me. I’m going to get another blood test at the end of this month. Follow this link for a recipe with good sources of iron (sans the excellent source of red meat) that triathlete and recipe writer Wendy McMillan developed.

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