Endurance athletes have a serious need for calories, and many of us turn to nutrition bars for quick energy. Well, here’s the problem: most of them taste disgusting. Some people don’t really care about what they eat as long as it quiets the roar of their stomach. However, many of us reach a point where we have to start paying better attention to the quality of our foods– for performance, weight loss, and many other reasons.
This past summer I started to feel like crap for no apparent reason. I was training for my first marathon and was about halfway through the training, when suddenly my long run took a horrible turn. I started off at 7:30 pace for about half of the run, and then suddenly I couldn’t hold a ten minute mile. After a few days, it all came screaming back to me: anemia. This dreaded nutritional deficiency had plagued me once before (and probably more than that but had gone undiagnosed) and I had not dealt with it properly the first time. The doctor’s recommendation to 1)give up my vegetarianism and 2)take these awful iron supplements which make you constipated 3)stop drinking coffee and tea because they block iron absorption and 4)take a break from running sent me into a frenzy. I was worried about gaining weight from eating red meat (which contains the most readily-absorbed form of iron), cranky from the lack of coffee and forced cross-training, and sick from the supplements. By the time I got my ferritin back to normal, I was injured and couldn’t run anyway. What a mess.
This time I was determined to handle this problem like a normal human being. I reduced my training volume temporarily, but also started to research nutritional interventions and training adaptations that I could live with. Here’s what I came up with:
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, and this should not substitute for medical advice. The information below is from my own research and personal experience. If you think you might be anemic, you should seek medical care.
1. Training on soft surfaces as much as possible. I do many of my runs on the roads and sidewalks because it’s convenient. I try to get most or all of long runs on soft surfaces, and do some of my workouts on the track or on trails. This cuts down on the hemolysis (breakdown of red blood cells) that occurs with every running step.
2. Train in shoes with more cushioning. Again, this is supposed to cut down on hemolysis. I still do a lot of my training in minimalist shoes, but I alternate cushioned shoes 2-3 times per week.
3. Take supplements. I take a multivitamin with iron every day and a “Slow Fe” supplement every other day. I take them in the afternoon with lunch because I can’t give up my morning coffee (coffee and tea contain tanins which block the absorption of iron).
4. Eat red meat once per week. This one was tough for me because I have been a vegetarian in varying degrees since the sixth grade. My husband is pretty happy that we started eating steaks since he likes to grill, and we’ve both started ordering burgers when we got out. I didn’t like them at first, but now I actually crave them!
5. Eat other whole foods that naturally contain iron and other important vitamins and minerals. This gets a little tricky because not all iron is created equally. This is where Picky Bars come in! I had been hearing all about these tasty nuggets and decided to read up on them. Well, lo and behold, the fine people at Picky Bars really know what they’re doing. They have a whole section on nutrition science for science nerds like me!
(you can read more details here http://www.pickybars.com/ingredient-science)
I actually took some of the ideas from the Picky Bars website and added those ingredients to my diet. For example, now I put pepitas and raisins in my salads. I also started eating more almond butter and cashew butter for variety (instead of plain old PBJs). Since then I haven’t had any problems with anemia. It took a few weeks to feel normal again, but the interventions worked!
The moral of this story (for me anyway) is just to keep things simple and not freak out when a problem arises. I’ve tried to stay away from being one of those people with fifty bottles of vitamins on their nightstand, because I know logically that real food is better for you. But I take those two supplements as “insurance” in case I miss something in my diet 🙂