• Helen Phillips

5 Reasons Iron is Important for Runners


I’m often asked by my runner clients whether they should take a vitamin and mineral supplement. I don’t, as I prefer to get my nutrition from real food. I always advise my clients that it’s better they improve their overall diet, eating more whole foods, lean protein, dairy, fruit and vegetables rather than splashing out on heavily marketed pills and powders to solve any probable or perceived nutrient gap.

As runners, especially distance runners, it’s really important that we eat a balance healthy diet. Training for a marathon or half doesn’t give you permission to eat the crap you might have denied yourself in more sedentary times. Running hard takes its toll on our bodies so it’s really important that we nourish them well. Poor nutrition, especially a diet lacking in essential vitamins and minerals can leave you lacking in energy, motivation and also susceptible to colds and other conditions. If you’re struggling, feeling sluggish, lacking in energy for no apparent reason though a training programme, take a look at your diet. Are you really giving your body the best chance to run, recover and repair?

Did you know that runners, especially distance runners, are susceptible to anaemia from low iron. And it’s not us us girls!

I decided to find out why ...

Iron is a critical mineral in our bodies energy processes. It’s the key mineral in haemoglobin in red blood cells, which carries oxygen around the body to muscles, and also carries waste products away. Myoglobin which stores oxygen in muscles for use during exercise, also contains iron, and iron is also used in enzymes in many energy generating pathways.

As runners we need to call upon our bodies to provide us with energy, so it’s really important we have good levels of iron in our bodies, for Haemoglobin, Myoglobin and for enzymes.

However, iron is lost from bleeding, sweating and shedding skin cells. When we run sweat production is increased to cool our body down.

Finally when we run we also lose iron through a processes called haemolysis. When we run, the repetitive action of our feet striking the ground causes some red blood cells to be ruptured. This released iron is then lost from our bodies in urine.

As runners we need good levels of iron to support energy production, but at the same time we’re losing iron from sweating and foot strike. Double wammy!

It’s been estimated that runners need about 65-75% more iron than the general population, so important that us runners get good levels of iron in our diet.

If you suspect you’re iron deficient, or deficient in any nutrient, you should consult your doctor. But there are a few things we can all do to ensure we’re getting good levels of iron in our diet.

Lean red meat is the best source of available iron, with lean beef, chicken and offal being great options. So include plenty of lean meat in your post run meals for iron as well as protein, which is important for muscle recovery and repair.

With a good diet vegetarians and vegans can get iron from whole and enriched grains, cereals and pasta, root and leafy vegetables, dried fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds. The iron from plant sources is less readily available than from meat sources, but eating with a source of vitamin C, cooking in an iron cooking pan and avoiding cocoa, coffee, tea, soy, egg and milk protein (which all reduce iron adsorption) will make sure you get iron in your diet.

So when you’re back from your long run or a hard workout, make sure you include iron rich foods in your post run recovery meals. It might just perk you up after a hard day!

The importance of iron to distance runners is just one of the topics reviewed in Eat Right for Your Marathon. Check out online nutrition courses here for more information.