Iron and the female athlete

Iron and the Female Athlete

Iron is a major deal for female athletes. Not only do athletes require more iron than the general population – but being female multiplies those needs. Being an endurance athlete is hard work and requires increased dietary iron. Every time your foot hits the ground, blood cells are damaged. Iron is lost through sweat. Red blood cells and blood vessels are constantly being turnover. And then you have a monthly blood loss on top of that. Yikes.

Low iron or iron anemia can cause fatigue, fogginess, frequent injury or illness, loss of power or endurance, high exertional heart rate, pale skin, cold hands, headaches and irritability. It also drags your performance down. Not only for the above mentioned symptomatic problems, but for the fact that iron builds the hemoglobin that carries oxygen to your working muscles and carbon dioxide away. Pretty big deal in endurance athletics.

There are two types of iron found in food. Non-Heme iron is found in plant foods and absorbed at about 2-20%. Good sources are lentils, beans, molasses, raisins and dark leafy greens. Heme iron is found in red and dark meat and absorbed at about 15-35%. Liver is an especially good source. Crazy good.

As with any vitamin or mineral, more is definitely not better. Supplementing iron causes a whole list of gastric upset from nausea to diarrhea. It is best to get iron from whole foods, and any good doctor will encourage those with slightly low iron profiles to eat better. If you do feel like you need to supplement, I would advise getting your levels tested beforehand by your GP with a simple blood test. Outside of some very unpleasant side effects, iron supplementation has been shown to be a contributor to heart disease and cancer in some studies. This is due to the potential for iron overload when popping pills.

The other trick is to always eat your high iron food with a good source of vitamin C since it increases absorption. A bowl of oatmeal sweetened with molasses and blueberries for breakfast will certainly start the day off right. And yum! Just try to take your latte later on or well in advance, as the caffeine in coffee and calcium in milk reduces the effect. Cooking in cast iron also helps – especially if you are cooking acidic foods.

Regular: Female athletes with regular periods should look at getting over 18 milligrams per day.

Pregnant: You may be training less intensely and not loosing iron each month but making a new person and nearly doubling your blood volume takes a lot of iron. Aim for at least 27 milligrams each day.

Postpartum: Iron is one of those minerals that is passed in very small quantities in breast milk. However, it has been shown that babies can use over 50% of the iron found in breast milk as compared to the less than 12% that they can extract from infant formula. Therefore, if breast feeding, you should ensure that you eat rich sources of iron to make it as available as possible to your baby. At least 10 milligrams per day is recommended, 5-10 milligrams than that more if you are also menstruating. Don’t worry though… babies are born with an iron store that lasts 5-6 months… I am sure no coincidence that this is also when their bodies become ready to process food.

Of course, there are other factors. For instance, vitamin K helps mobilize iron from their stores. You may have a malapsorption disorder or issue.

I feel like the big reason that 30% of the world’s population may have iron deficiency anemia (WHO) is the prevalence of low nutrient, high calorie food that has flooded our lives. Nature in all her wisdom has provided us with everything we need to thrive. Thrive on.

Women’s running in Canada

Women's Running in Canada

Krista Duchene is in many ways your typical busy mom of 3. Typical, in that she does all the stuff someone with a 6, 4 and 1 year-old typically does. Untypical, because she is also at the top of the Canadian marathon scene. While most of us struggle to get dinner on the table, keep the kids happy, and get out for a 5k, Krista manages a grueling training regime on top of it all. She also works as a dietician.

Canada has a poor record for supporting marathon runners at Krista’s level. The IAAF marathon standard is 2:37, but Canada’s standard is a much tougher 2:29:55. Duchene ran 2:32:06 in Rotterdam and appealed to Athletics Canada for a two minute grace period. They denied her. Of course, going to the Olympics doesn’t provide athletes with direct financial incentives, but it does open sponsorship doors and gives athletes experience on the world stage. In most events there is what is called a “rising star” exemption for athletes that come near the standard. Since marathon runners often come from shorter distance events; however, it does not apply. No woman in Canada has ever made our Olympic standard. Ever. It seems to me that’s a good reason to look at how we’re doing things.

The men’s Olympic marathon is only recently getting better. This year we filled all three spots on the team. Dylan Wykes was selected after running the same marathon that Duchene ran in, 7 days before the end of the qualifying period. We have not sent a man to the Olympic marathon for 12 years. It’s no wonder that on now do we send 3 strong runners in, on the cusp of breaking Jerome Draydon’s long standing Canadian record.

Compare the life of a working mother of 3 grinding out hard training on her own with that of the great Paula Radcliffe who has a nanny and a stay at home husband. And it’s still hard. It’s no wonder we can’t make our own seemingly unachievable standard. The difference in earnings for an average NHL player and an average pro marathoner is atrocious. For them, that doesn’t bode well to having a normal life, or a family. For us, that doesn’t bode well to having marathon runners go to the Olympics… particularly females.

Some finger that lack of good coaches and good female role models in the marathon in Canada. Fair enough. Though wouldn’t having some females representing the marathon at the Olympics have really sparked it up?

Chicked, chicking, chick.

This morning, I toed up toward the line of the 5k Resolution Run, leaving one row of runners between me and the start line. One row of male runners. As I judged whether I should press into the very front, I got some “don’t be getting in the way now” glances. Every runner knows this seeding game. At the 8k in Victoria, I played elbow leap frog with a guy sized and dressed like Rocky (who clearly won). As soon as the crowd opened, I never saw him again. This time, I stayed back… and as the gun went off, the pace didn’t, so I hopped into the grass and passed. 7th, 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd. 1st was a slender youth Japanese man in sleek kit. As I passed his head spun around at me in horror. This was not a guy to be chicked. Apparently my appearance caused some ferocious internal combustion type reaction. He took off effortlessly and instantaneously at a 5 minute-mile pace. To which I did not follow. No matter, the fear of woman was in his heart. He opened up the gap further and further. 100m, 200m, 400m. Every 50m, shoulder checking to make sure that I did not go with him. I couldn’t run that fast for 100m, forget 5,000m. As he got smaller and smaller in the distance, I could still see his now tiny head whip around from time to time. Was it something I said?

The Urban Dictionary defines “chicking” as “when a woman outperforms a man in a physical activity such as hiking, biking, or skiing, where a man should normally outperform a woman.” It’s common in running and cycling too. Pam Reed chicked every man in the prestigious Bad Water two years in a row (2002 & 2003). We running mamas all know the sweet silent mini-victory of the stroller-chick. I was once refused entry to a race with my stroller not for insurance issues, but to protect the fragile egos of men running for their PBs. The race director worried: How is one to feel about hitting their goal time – but being passed by a stroller, being pushed by a lady, in a skort? Oh the horror. At the end of one of my better races (with my daughter in tow), the man behind me exclaimed at the finish, “I just got beat. By a lady. Who just had a baby. Who was pushing that baby in a stroller.” He seemed genuinely as happy about my stroller-chicking as I did, even though he got chicked.

We know we shouldn’t be so competitive. But… It’s only really chicking if it bugs the guy you’re passing. Otherwise, it’s just a pass. And if it bugs him… Well… Maybe that’s the game?

What do you think? Is chicking an offensive term that perpetuates inequality in sport? Or a little harmless fun between genders competing on the same level? Do you even notice when you pass a guy in a race or when a woman passes you? How about if it’s your spouse?

Baby Doping

I for one can testify that women, OK I, possess inhuman strength postnatally. I ended up gaining 35 pounds and ending my pregnancy putting shame to the term “runner” with my best waddley rendition of what I thought running looked like. I stopped at every port potty, gas station and tree to relieve my aching bladder and the rest of the time bounced around trying to ignore it’s crampy plight. The day Ama came was the first of our Sun Run training clinic. That would have been fine if I was participating, but I was coordinating. How could I miss the first run?

So when my water broke in the car on route, I knew it was going to be an interesting morning. After setting up, I slipped into the vacant stairwell to phone and ask the on-call obstetrician if he thought it would be OK that I go for a run. An old crankity fellow, his answer was as disbelieving as it was direct. “No. No, I don’t think it would be OK.” I went into the delivery room in taxed spandex and a pair of now-one-size-too-small New Balance 890s.

Post-baby I felt like I was dragging a tent trailer everywhere I went. But I kept going. I had a great running group who motivated me and supported me through all those breast-feeding walks and blanket shuffles. Plus, I always had to catch up. So as my fitness came back, it just kept climbing. I ran the Sun Run 3 months postpartum and made the top 100 list. I made attempts at training all summer, never surpassing the 3 hour mark for a long run and only on one occasion surpassing two hours. In 2006 I was in a serious accident that left me on a train of injury after injury. Maybe the imposed low mileage helped keep the injuries at bay. I ran a sub-90 half, and to my surprise, and the surprise of my coach at the time, a 3:09 full. The last 3/4’s was painful – but I kept some sort of pace up.

Many athletes have experienced similar situations. Colleen De Reuck set the world record in the 10-mile postpartum. Magdalena Lewy Boulet dropped her 10k time from 32:40 to 31:28, her half from 1:15 to 1:11 and her full from 2:30 to 2:26 post-baby. Catriona Matthew, a Scottish golfer, won the British Scottish Women’s Only 10 weeks after delivering. Kara Goucher PR’d and came 5th in the Boston five-months postpartum. Shayne Culpepper dropped her 1,500m from 4:08 to 4:05, her 3,000m from 9:17 to 8:54 and her 5k from 15:31 to 15:01 after having a baby. Sara Vaughn took her mile time from 4:58 to 4:11. Derartu Tulu dropped her 5k from 14:50 to 14:44, her 10k from 31:08 to 30:17 and her marathon from 2:30 to 2:23 after child birth. Ingrid Kristiansen won the Houston marathon 5 months after delivery. Of course, famously, Sonia O’Sullivan won silver in the Olympic 5,000m 14 months postpartum.

Of course, there are other unfavourable examples. Paula Radcliffe may have won the NYC marathon nine months after having a baby, but she hasn’t come within her twice bettered world record since child birth.

In fact, there is even a rumour that was humoured during the 1984 International Olympic Committee meeting about Abortion Doping. Apparently there had been some talk of known Eastern European athletes getting pregnant and timing abortions at three months gestation and close to a major competition to gain the positive cardiovascular effects of pregnancy and subsequent performance increases. There is at least one official report of a Swiss doctor being involved. The whole abortion doping story may have evolved from forced abortions in Eastern European athletes that became pregnant due to fears about the birth outcomes of babies whose mothers were on steroids or other performance enhancing drugs. Perhaps even the concern of babies born to mothers who exercised at a high level alone was enough to fuel fear about fetal outcome. Remember, this was a time when female exertion was still thought to be dangerous, forget the effects on a developing fetus. In fact, there were no women’s distance running events in the Olympics prior to the 1980s. However, the potential physiological boosts from pregnancy have been widely acknowledged and the theory that an athlete might “abortion dope” to gain a performance advantage is plausible.

Thank goodness there have been no rumours of the occurrence as of late. But it does shed a light on an interesting question, “Does having a baby make you weaker? Or stronger?”

Of course, there is a plethora of additional reasons beyond the physiological changes of pregnancy. Women may have a raised pain threshold and fearlessness after going through labour. They may find more balance in their life and ascribe less importance to the outcome of races. They may be happier. They may use their training time more efficiently. They may simply be tougher. We always consider relaxin’s* role in decreasing joint stability, but it may also increase mobility and tissue suppleness.

On the flip side though, if women are not taking care of themselves postnatally they put themselves at increased risk of musculoskeletal injury. If they do not take in enough vitamins, minerals and nutrients, they risk depleting their bones. The relaxin puts them at increased risk of soft tissue injury. Extreme fatigue and inattentiveness compounds these risks.

I personally belief that this superwoman lift in performance is a throw-back from when we had to keep up with the tribe. It just makes sense that women would get an edge to help them carry along the tribe’s newest and most critical members.┬áSo, postpartum mamas, what’s your take? Has anyone seen a major difference in their abilities postpartum for better or for worse?

*Relaxin is a hormone that is present in high levels prenatally that “relaxes” ligaments to allow the pelvis to expand and open up the birthing path. It continues to be present in the body until 6 months, and even up to a year postpartum. It has a global softening effect on all body tissues.