Runner PSA: check your iron levels!

For at least 9 months I’ve been wondering, what happened? Why do I feel this way? I’m so tired, I sometimes feel like I can barely get through the normal day, much less a good workout. When was the last time I even had a good workout, one where I felt like I just crushed it? I can’t remember. When was the last time I was excited to race, or did the best that I know I’m capable of performing?

This conversation, in my head, over and over. So I took the breaks, and I did what I thought I knew to let my body heal, rest, recover. And still. And still every time I’d go out for a run, it would feel painfully slow. Painfully more difficult than it ever had before and than I knew it should. My muscles seemed like they just wouldn’t work. My body felt clunky and heavy, like everything was suffocating, couldn’t breath, couldn’t feel fluid. I plugged away, thinking I could just will myself out of the funk I was in, pile on the miles and hope for the best. The best didn’t come; just a sense of dread nearly every time I dragged myself out the door. In all the years that I’ve been in this love affair with running, I’d never experienced that feeling. That dreadfulness. And it just made me more depressed about the whole damn thing. Like something I loved had been inexplicably wrenched out of my hands. I tried to chase it, tackle it down, but it was elusive. Running felt like sand now, like something I was trying to hold onto, but it kept slipping through my fingers and simultaneously the mound that was piling up under my feet was so heavy that I felt like I couldn’t move. Then there is the psychological component. A runner is so much of who I am. How do I define that part of my identity when I feel this way? When I feel like I’m trying so hard to catch up to the thing I love and I just can’t? How bad do you want it? How bad? I’d ask myself this, and the only answer that emerged was, apparently not bad enough.

But then I finally learned I was wrong, that it had nothing to do with that.

Runners can be a stubborn bunch. I’m no exception. Even with years and years (gosh, decades now) of running experience under my belt, at lots of different distances, it took me nearly 9 months to go to the doctor and have some tests run. I found that my ferritin iron and hemoglobin levels are extremely low, even for what’s necessary to sustain non-athletes. Low to the point of anemia. I’m grateful it was nothing super serious, and anemia with an iron deficiency is not uncommon among female endurance athletes.  Lots of people have told me this, and focused on the pervasiveness of the problem. I know they are trying to help me know that things will get better in a fairly straightforward way. While I appreciate that, I’ve also been focused on just how crappy it is and trying to ascertain how high the hurdle is. It’s not a show stopper, but I had a lot of worry and fear before I had the tests done and knew for certain. I went through months that slowly declined from very focused training, to oh-my-gosh-I-can’t-handle-running-with-a-GPS-and-seeing-how-slow-my-times-are, to running by feel, which when you do with anemia means super sub-par training. I have a lot of fitness ground to make up now that I know what is happening inside of my body, and I’ve started to address the issue. It can take a lot of trial and error, and time of course, to work it out and get levels back up to a point that is conducive to peak performance. In many ways my 2016 racing is a bust. But knowing is half the battle, so watch out 2017, I’m coming for you in all my iron increased glory!

If you feel like something is wrong, something is off, then it probably is. Talk to experienced people, do the research, go see your doctor, and go through the steps to figure it out. Every body is different. I have eaten a largely plant based diet for many years now, and know a lot about nutrition. What I didn’t know is that my body wasn’t efficiently absorbing all of the non-heme iron I was ingesting, leading to a downward spiral into the pit of anemia (or despair as I like to think of it, wa wa!). I never thought I needed a supplement, but now I know I was wrong. Right now I’m experimenting with a liquid iron. Some days I feel good, and my energy is definitely up. I’ve even had some really amazing feeling runs in the past two weeks! But other days, I feel like I take two steps back. I might have to try some other supplements to see what works best. Prior to this debacle, I was not a vegetarian out of a strong moral conviction, so I’ve also began to reintroduce lean red and other meats back into my diet (and the husband rejoices – he recalls the time when I was pregnant with Elise and wanted Five Guys burgers 2, maybe 3 times a week in the first trimester!). The human body is a crazy, complex, beast of a machine, and when we want to enjoy our occupation within it, sometimes we have to go through these trial and error learning moments. If I had to sum up what I experienced before I was officially diagnosed with anemia, it would look like the following:

  • Chronic and unrelenting fatigue and irritability
  • Suppressed immune system – I was sick a lot, and caught everything the kids brought home (which I didn’t usually catch every bug in the past). I give a lot of myself to people and things other than myself, and when you’re sick more than normal, making the time to try to figure things out is even more difficult.
  • Increased lactic acid build up. Dead leg all.the.time. It really felt like I was never fully recovering from even the easiest of workouts.
  • Decreased power. Hills and elevation used to be where I shone. They suddenly became a literal wall that would cause me to screech to a very slow pace.
  • Overall loss of fitness. I was too tired to do a lot of strength training, which I used to do, and when I tried it was always sub par work. When your body is physically incapable of working harder, and then isn’t recovering, it’s hard to improve.
  • Decreased performance across the board.

Despite all of that stuff above, I’m grateful. I’m grateful for the allowance this knowledge gives me to focus on my health, and on the process of being. We live in a culture that glorifies pushing beyond our limits at all costs. Instagram photos, Facebook feeds, so much of media often shows a linear progress – do the work, push yourself, improvement will come. Except when it doesn’t. Sometimes all that pushing exacerbates underlying issues, and the progress we’re supposed to see only pushes us further down the spiral of thinking we’re not doing enough. But now I feel like I can just breathe. Just take a moment, hell some moments, to be. I can step back and reassess what it means to want to continuously be a better version of myself.  For now, I just want to be a whole version of myself, wherever I am at any given moment. This step back allows me to see that and to work on that.

Today I will not push the process….I’ll remind myself I’m in it for the long haul and be content with that being enough. I hope that this post helps some other struggling runners out there figure out what could be going on with them!

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