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April 2, 2013 at 3:26 PMComments: 1 Faves: 0

Runners Beware. Anemia's on the Loose

By Jeff from SLN More Blogs by This Author

There’s something that’s been affecting 3.5 million people here in the U.S., sapping their energy and their will to be active; they even lose their will to be stationary and melt into a pile of goop. This is what anemia feels like…goop.  But aren’t runner’s safe from these afflictions?

Runners vs. Anemia

Exercise is known to make the body stronger and more energetic. Therefore, someone who runs on a regular basis is certainly active and likely fit. At least that’s what I gathered from health class. But, some runners develop low iron levels, leaving them feeling a general fatigue. How could this be?


Anemia is a condition with symptoms of fatigue, but someone who develops this condition from running may not feel the same level of weakness as others. However, someone with anemia associated to endurance running will still feel a degree of weariness. There will be a higher level of lactate in the blood, causing slower recovery, heavy feeling legs, tightness in muscles, and a higher risk of injury.

The condition develops because, for whatever reason, oxygen isn’t carried efficiently by the blood. Iron is a necessary component of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in red blood cells from the lungs to the muscles. The body’s muscles burn the delivered oxygen for energy to move. When the red blood cells are damaged or lack the proper iron to carry oxygen, they are left unable to deliver that much needed fuel to turn your body into a powerhouse.

How-oh-how could this happen?

The accepted cause behind measurements of low iron in runners has fluctuated over time. It had been thought that the there was an anemia epidemic among runners for some time before it was categorized as “pseudo-anemia” in 1992 by a group of researchers in South Africa. They found that a low hemoglobin content was a result of an increased production of red blood cells and actually increased the blood’s ability to transport oxygen.

However, other studies have found a significant decrease of iron in athletes over the course of training that could cause concern, a problem most likely to develop in distance runners as compared to other athletes. An Israeli study recorded the prevalence of anemia among military recruits at 18%. However, these levels were found to be 50% after six months of training. Also, in 2008, a study at the University of Minnesota found that 89% of its womens’ cross country team was anemic at some point during the season.

But why?

Medical professionals don’t agree. Some attribute anemia in distance runners to normal body processes that are simply carried out at more extreme levels over a run compared to other physical activities. Iron is lost through sweat or through any tissue inflammation.  Also, red blood cells are crushed by the heel strike of each stride. However, these depletions are negligible – it’s unlikely that they’d have a dramatic effect, even over a long distance.

Another theory into the cause is a little less clever: diet. Athletes need more iron in their diet than the average person will, but their body isn’t getting this necessary nutrient. This is caused in part by consuming things that serve to block iron absorption: calcium, coffee, tea, pop, and non-steroidal anti-inflamitories like ibuprofen. It doesn’t help that the body only takes in about 15% of the iron ingested in the first place. While it may be common among all Americans to consume these things, iron is sorely missed among runners who depend on a proper amount of oxygen reaching their muscles. It’s recommended that premenopausal women get at least 15mg of iron per day, and everyone else should be getting 10mg.

Should I worry?

Promise you won’t go hypochondriac on me. You need to push yourself in order to improve, and it’s normal to feel tired after a run. Lance Armstrong Barry Bonds Dennis Rodman didn’t get to the top by cutting corners, and you should be willing to work up a sweat. That being said, if you just can’t shake your case of the “I’m exhausted all the time,” you may want to see a medical professional and ask if something is out of whack. Remember, your red blood cells are innocent until proven guilty. It’s in the constitution.

Good luck out there, and keep that oxygen movin’.


Fitzgerald, Matt. "Anemia And The Runner." Competitor. Competitor Group, Inc., 16 Aug. 2010. Web. 28 Mar. 2013.

Hess, Jeff. "Iron Depletion: What You and Your Doctor Need to Know." Track & Field News. Track & Field News, n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2013.

WebMD. "Understanding Anemia -- the Basics." WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2013.

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1 Comment

  • I ended up with low iron with all the running I do...that means taking a liquid iron supplement 1-2 times a day for a while. It boosts my iron but the teeth-staining and taste are the downfalls. :/

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