A common theme throughout my last few race recaps has been energy, or rather, lack thereof. In fact, I would say that my energy levels have been a zig zagging for the last year and a half. It wasn’t as noticeable in the earlier part of 2015, but as the year went on, my good run to bad run ratio was shifting in bad way. Quality runs, real “workouts”, feeling good for the entire run, and good races began to occur less often. The heat of this past summer compounded my feelings of lethargy and training was spotty and inconsistent. Coming into 2016, I started to wonder whether something was seriously wrong with my health. I ended up missing the Surf City Half Marathon for the first time since 2010, and the LA Marathon for the first time since 2011. This prompted me to finally face a small, but significant fear of mine: a needle.
Naturally, I was a Google search pro when it came to my symptoms and possible ailments. Based on how I was feeling, I was guessing that my iron and/or ferritin levels were very low. Symptoms of low iron include dizziness, being grumpy or cranky, headaches, feeling short of breath, and fatigue. I had all of these, and they were starting to majorly affect my quality of life. I’ve felt post-race and post-workout tired plenty of times, or tired from lack of sleep, but this was a different type of exhaustion. I also noticed that my heart rate would increase very quickly and would feel uncomfortable. Along with the symptoms of iron deficiency, I educated myself on the very important roles of iron and ferritin.
Iron: forms complexes with oxygen from hemoglobin and myoglobin, both of which are oxygen transport proteins. The primary role of iron is to transport this oxygen around the body. Iron is also required to produce red blood cells, and to convert blood sugar to energy.
Ferritin: stores and controls the release of iron. It works to prevent iron deficiency and iron overload.
It all started to make sense, but I still needed to get the blood test to prove it. On Tuesday, I saw my primary care physician for a full physical, which I haven’t had done in way too many years. As a young person who exercises and eats healthily, I don’t see the need to visit a doctor unless something seriously hurts or seems off. Whether this is the right or wrong way to manage one’s health is subjective, but I am glad that I finally went. My urine panel was clean and my EKG showed a very normal heart (I was a little worried about this due to the heart rate issues), but my blood test provided the answer that I desperately needed. My iron level was extremely low. Though I needed to get to work on correcting it immediately, the sense of relief that I felt that day was incredible. I finally knew why I’d been feeling so awful for the last few months. Fortunately, iron levels are correctable and I have started to take an iron pill every day. I actually started to take the pills before the blood test; I was fairly positive it was an iron issue (this probably wasn’t the best idea because too much iron can be toxic). I’ve also included iron rich foods in my daily diet. Iron-rich foods include red meat, lentils, beans, spinach, cream of wheat (really high!), tofu, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, dried fruits, and nuts.
I do feel a sense of stupidity for not having taken care of this sooner. I knew that iron deficiency was common amongst females (20% of females in the U.S. are iron deficient), and especially female endurance athletes. I was also aware that my diet did not include a lot of the heme-rich red meat, but I’ve never been keen on taking supplements. It is important for anyone to get regular check-ups, healthy or not, and I wish I would’ve been more on top of this.
During the last month, my running got to the point where a 4 mile run was about all I could handle, and that run would include 2-3 breaks. Interestingly, an iron deficient body absorbs more iron and quicker. It makes sense – the body is hungry for the good stuff! Since starting to take iron pills and eating Cream of Wheat every morning for breakfast (I’m eating other iron-rich foods, not just this), I’m already feeling a difference. I ran 7 miles this morning, with a minimal number of breaks, and at a decent pace which felt much slower. I’ve also implemented strength training into my routine. I feel better and less oxygen deprived.
Coupled with this immense feeling of relief is hope. I wasn’t sure what my future looked like in terms of running, but I was becoming very negative about it. “I’m DONE with this stupid sport,” “I wasn’t ever meant to be a runner,” “running makes me miserable,” were thoughts that made themselves at home in my head. It makes me sad to write that, and to realize that something which used to make me so happy turned into a black cloud over my life. However, I think that anyone who really knows me, is well aware that I love running. I have hope that it will continue to be a constant in my life, that I will improve as an athlete, that it will once again make me happy, and that I will return to good health. Relief + hope is a potent combination and part of the recipe* to my own happiness.
*Now includes more pumpkin seeds, cream of wheat, steak, and spinach.