Dealing with Iron Deficiency

Iron deficiency… it’s super common for runners, especially female runners.

Both last year and the year before, I had the frustrating experience of being super iron-deficient. (In the summer of 2018, my ferritin level dropped to single digits!) It was terrible. I would get super sleepy every day at work around 3pm, then I had no energy left to do anything after work. Running, even hiking in the mountains wasn’t an option… it didn’t even feel fun anymore, I was so drained.

The worst part was that I couldn’t figure out how to solve it. I had been taking iron pills every evening for 2-years straight, but somehow I was still completely anemic. Sure I was running frequently, but it wasn’t super-crazy mileage relative to what I’ve done in the past (usually about 100km a week on soft trails). Both years, it got so bad that I had to go get rounds of iron infusions at the hospital. Each time, I promised myself I’d work harder to figure it out. I wanted to avoid using hospital resources as a relatively healthy person. Plus, the discomfort of both the condition and the infusions wasn’t sustainable.

This year, I think I’ve finally come to figure out some strategies to prevent iron deficiency, while still being able to run. I checked my iron levels about 2 months ago, and they were super strong!

With a goal of helping anyone who struggles with this, I thought I’d share some of the day to day things I’m doing differently this year. Hopefully this can give you some food for thought, maybe a new idea to try!

Winter off-season & cross-training

Every year in the past, I’d sign up for a 100km trail race sometime in late winter or early spring. I love racing at that time of year, because I tend to respond well to cooler temperatures, and it can be fun to have something to look forward to during the dark winter months.

This year, I did the opposite. Except for the Sun Run (road 10k), I didn’t allow myself to sign up for a single running race before May. My rationale was that it would help me to train just a tiny bit less. Instead of feeling the need to go out and do a super long run for a specific race, I’d be more likely to go out, and just run until I got tired. I know myself well by now, and those winter/spring ultras encourage me a little too much!

ski touring in squamish

One of many fun saturyay ski outings this year. This is Nancy in Squamish.

In the place of a winter running race, I embraced winter. I decided that ski touring would replace a lot of my super-long runs, as it’s super fun, comparable fitness, and also very kind on the body compared to running. I expanded my definition of “miles per week” to include ski touring and nordic skiing miles, and then I replaced some of my usual running fun with the lower-impact sports. Typically, I’d have one rest day per week, plus two days where I’d go ski touring instead of running. To help me resist the urge to sign up for a winter/spring running race, I instead signed up for a couple ski mountaineering races. I’d still get the community aspect I love, but it would direct my energies more toward cross-training sports!

Not only was the cross-training lower impact, but it was also way more fun than running in the zero-degree rain every day. When I did run, I felt super well-rested, and I was running much faster because I was energized.

Now that April is here, I feel mentally rested from the slight off-season, and excited to start running more now!

Small nutrition tweaks

First off, I switched my iron pills to a heme variety, which is sort of gross, but I was desperate. (Heme iron is easier for the body to absorb.) I also bought a gigantic Vitamin C bottle to always take with the iron pills. (It increases absorption to take them together.)

When I thought about my daily nutrition, there were no obvious, large changes to make. I’d already started eating a tiny bit of meat here and there. Then I started reading more about iron inhibitors, and I had a few habits to confront.

squamish farmers market

Squamish Farmer’s Market produce! I tried that black kale, the carrots, and the purple cauliflower. So delish!

First, caffeine inhibits iron absorption. I realized that I drink coffee all day long, so that was likely interfering with my body’s ability to absorb iron from meals throughout the day. That’s pretty easy to fix! I switched to only 1 cup of caffeinated coffee in the morning, then I drink this delicious decaf coffee from Rooftop Coffee Roasters.

Milk also inhibits the body’s ability to absorb iron. When I thought about my eating habits, I realized that every night before bed (and right before taking my iron pill), I was having a decaf hot milky tea, with tons of milk and honey. That one was also pretty easy, I just switched the cow’s milk to oat milk. It’s actually even more delicious now! In fact, I became completely obsessed with oat milk. It’s all I drink now. I’m sure this can’t hurt the overall iron absorption, and it’s delicious.

Obviously this isn’t a comprehensive change in nutrition practices, I was just looking for easy wins. For a full list of foods that inhibit iron absorption, check out this article!

Huge shoes!

It may be a rumour, but I’d heard some people who theorize that running is particularly prone to aggrevating iron deficiency because of the foot landing on the ground and killing red blood cells.

To mix things up for my 10k road race training, I bought a pair of Nikes with a ton of cushioning this winter. I intended to use them for road runs, but I noticed that I wanted to wear them on every single run. They were just so bouncy and fun! Suddenly I was never wearing my minimalist trail shoes. All I wanted was the cushion!

running shoes

Since then, I bought a pair of Hoka trail shoes, and I’ve been alternating the two shoes throughout the week.

I can’t say for sure, but I do think the big cushy shoes have helped.

You got this!

That’s all I can think of for now… If you’re struggling with iron deficiency, I feel you. It sucks. Hopefully my experience can help you consider some new ideas. I encourage you to keep trying new things, and that something will work! My iron levels are healthy this year for the first time in 3 years, and I think these strategies played a big role! If you want to brainstorm other ideas, feel free to comment on this post or chat on Instagram. You can find me over there at funtimes.woodside.

 

 

 

The Dog That Bit Me

Two weeks ago, a Rottweiler bit me.

I was running, of course. I was down a flat dirt road near the ocean, listening to How I Built This podcast, featuring Soul Cycle. It was a Friday afternoon. I happened to have the day off, and I was getting excited about the weekend. I was going to sneak 15k before the weekend even began, hoping to start discretely building lots of mileage before an upcoming 100km race.

Just as I started feeling good, this mini chihuahua came running, directly at me. It was so tiny, about the size of my left foot. How cute, I remember thinking. I stepped to the left so that I wouldn’t crush the little thing. Just then, everything else changed. There was a Rottweiler on a leash about six feet further to the left, and the second I stepped a foot left, it overtook its owner, jumped and bit my arm.

All I can remember is seeing the dog’s large jaw around my elbow and then acting like a four-year-old. I went into a weird state of shock, and frankly, I’m ashamed with how I reacted. I started crying, and I was irritated about the dumbest things– how the dog had interrupted my awesome podcast, how I’d gotten blood on my new iPhone, how I had to stop the rhythym of my run. There were angry tears, some swearing, some blood, and for some weird reason, I refused to tell the owner my name. She was really sweet, was trying to give me her name and phone number, but for some reason, I didn’t want it. I just wanted to run away.

So naturally, I did.

I’m stubborn, so I insisted on finishing my run, just wrapping a buff around my bloody elbow and then heading further. I was simply grasping for the only thing I had control over.


Tonight, I had a meeting outside the grocery store with the woman who owned the dog.

She’d brought me flowers, and a shirt, to replace the one the dog chewed.

Looking her in the face for the first time, I noticed she was pretty. She was stylish, her skin was really nice, and her eyes had sparkly eyeshadow. I suddenly felt a warmth between us, like I wanted to hug her.

We talked about what happened, and then her eyes started to well up. She told me that they’d decided to put the dog down. They’d adopted it as a rescue dog, and unfortunately, it came with trust issues. They’d taken the dog to a behavioural specialist in the past, but it was hard to train an old dog. Seeing her tear up, I could tell this whole thing was harder on her than it was on me.

I didn’t know what to say. I told her that she’d given the dog a great life and that she did the right thing. Hell, it was on a leash, jumped from far away and bit me. With my words, I tried to strike a balance between supporting her decision by agreeing how dangerously the dog had behaved, while not bashing the late dog she clearly loved.

As a fireplace-dwelling cat owner, I couldn’t fully understand how someone could unconditionally love a dog that’s capable of harm.

But I didn’t need to understand. The fact was, the Rottweiler was gone, and at this moment, we had closure to move on. We hugged, and then I told her I hoped to see her around town soon, before turning toward the grocery store.

“Good luck with your running”, she said, as we parted. For some reason, I said, “You too”, even though I didn’t know if she ran or not.

I left feeling inspired by the small encounter. We’d taken something negative, and transformed it into something that made us feel warm inside. I wondered if perhaps, navigating my way through these small daily challenges with other humans, and making the situations feel warm and fuzzy– maybe that’s a worthy goal in life.

I Want All The Goals, Right Now (Goals For Impatient People)

If you have lots of goals, how do you space them out?

I get it, I’m supposed to set goals for various timeframes. Some for this year, some for next year, some for ten years from now. But what about for impatient / goal-greedy people? I see those 3-year goals, and I want them all at once, along with my goals for this year. It’s sort of like a buffet, where I try to stuff as much on my plate as possible, so that there’s no space on the plate. It’s towering, and when I walk by other people, they just sort of stare at my plate in horror!

I feel like my goals are similar. I have lots and I understand they should be spaced out, but I can’t resist wanting them all, now!

2 different paths. Both please, now!

Some of my goals this year are running-related, things like seeing if I can better my best time at Chuckanut 50k this March, running the West Coast Trail solo in late June, and having a great run at UTMB’s TDS in August. In coming years, I also really want to further my skiing skills, and get into ski mountaineering. The trouble is, I’m super impatient, and I really desperately want everything at once. It means I’m never fully focused on one thing, I’m always thinking about how I can fit the other things in, too. And when you factor in the variability of planning for skiing, having to time the weather, avalanche safety, and the snow conditions, it just doesn’t work that well with also trying to improve in running. Doing multiple things at once is totally fine, but often the best people are the ones who really focus their efforts and energies, day after day. (One gal I really admire who exemplifies this is Krissy Moehl! 18 years of dedication and she wins every damn race there is!)

Lots of goals, I want them all now! Like skiing up to Sproatt in Whistler backcountry.

The only reason I even noticed my tendency to get impatient & greedy with my goals is thanks to my running coach, David. Occasionally I would go out and ski instead of running what I had in my schedule. It was oblivious to me that this might be less than ideal, until I learned from him, that this might be a bad idea the week before a running race. Before having a coach for trail running, I would just go out and do whatever I felt like, so at first it felt weird that there could be an ideal timing to consider, and to plan adventures neatly around the timing. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I could conform to a timing or restrict my adventures in any way. But how can you expect to improve, if you just keep doing the same thing, never fully committing?

After thinking more about it, I realized that I have a commitment phobia. By doing lots of goals at once I allow myself to dabble, and I stay away from having to fully commit to any one goal. When the time comes to put myself to the test, I never have to know that I gave everything, because I didn’t. I was out frolicking, and I never did fully apply myself to the single purpose, so I can avoid the same level of expectation as though I had. Instead of doing X really well, I did X and Y and Z to a pretty good level. And it’s comfortable, by goal-dabbling, I stay exactly the same each year, maintaining my comfy spot while minimizing chance of failure, by doing other things too. (Case in point, I ran Deception Pass 50k in 2017 & 2013, both times were only 5 minutes off!)

Photo by Ashley Agellon – on Bowen Island in 2017

I hear that some people stagger their goals, and they actually space them out, taking one goal at a time and giving it their all. Going for one goal with everything is a big risk, it’s more clear when you fail, the ego can be crushed, and so it takes courage to commit.

To push past the comfy mediocrity I know and love, I’m going to finally give it a try, dedicate myself fully to one goal without those side goals, and see what happens. For me this year, it means I’ll give the running goals my attention, actually following my training plan and trusting the process. Then next year, I’ll give skiing its own time and space in my goals.

The monthly winter sun came out in North Vancouver, BC!