Provo runner manages iron deficiency to improve athletic performance

By Aley Davis, KSL TV | Posted - Jul. 5, 2019 at 6:27 p.m.

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PROVO — Exercising can be challenging, and adding health complications can make it even more difficult. But one Provo athlete won’t let anything stop her.

Amber Andrews, 34, is a remarkable athlete. She recently broke a record in the Utah Valley 10K race and still holds the BYU freshman 5K record. She competed in the USA Worlds team for cross-country and track two years in a row.

Even as she’s gotten older and become a mother she still runs extremely fast. At a recent early morning practice in Provo, she ran a 5:35 pace with her team.

But two years ago, Andrews noticed something wrong. By the end of a workout, she felt unusually exhausted.

"I've been feeling, like, really off and down, just super low energy," she explained.

Andrews got her blood tested and found out her iron levels were extremely low. "I could still work out, I was just tired and fatigued,” she said. She found it hard to breathe and didn't recover well after exercising.

Intermountain Healthcare's Dr. Max Testa, a sports performance physician at the LiVe Well Center in Park City, said iron is critical for everyone, especially women who work out regularly.

Testa said iron’s function is to carry oxygen from the lungs to the muscles in the body. He said without it, your body can’t perform as well. "You may feel like your muscles are getting sore with exercise (and) recovery is longer," he said.

He said other symptoms include having pale skin, losing hair, feeling anxious or experiencing restless leg syndrome.

Testa said endurance athletes tend to have an iron deficiency because they destroy more red cells. “Because these red cells carrying oxygen to the muscle gets squeezed into the muscle going through small blood vessels,” he explained.

Plus, Testa said runners destroy red blood cells every time their foot hits the ground. He also said when people exercise, blood tends to leave the gastrointestinal system for the muscle, causing athletes to lose iron in the process.

He added about 50% of female athletes with regular menstrual cycles tend to also have an iron deficiency.

Testa said the body doesn't naturally produce iron, meaning you have to get it through your diet. He said sources like red meat, fish and chicken are best, in addition to dark, leafy greens and broccoli.

Andrews started including foods with higher iron intake in her diet. "I'm not a huge red meat eater, but I do love a good steak,” she said laughing.

More your life your health:

Testa said iron from food is always the best choice; but if someone still needs more, he recommends they supplement their intake through over-the-counter iron tablets.

He said the recommended intake for adult males is about 8 milligrams to 9 milligrams per day, and for adult females is about 15 to 18 milligrams a day. Testa said pregnant or menstruating women could benefit from a little bit more.

Andrews is slowly working her way back to health. “Every little point, I can feel it. Literally, I feel a little bit better, a little bit," she described.

Even when Andrews hasn’t felt well, she has never considered giving up the sport she loves. “I don't know what I do without it!" she said.

Testa encourages anyone experiencing symptoms of extreme fatigue to get their blood tested regularly. He said iron is not a performance enhancer if you have healthy levels already in your body, and warns people against taking supplements unnecessarily.


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