Friday, August 9, 2013

Iron girl: the magic is in the metal

I wrote a couple days ago about suddenly getting (relatively) fast. I have been really pondering what could have brought this about. While it's true that the way you get better at running is to run, this change has been extreme. I have shaved a full two minutes off my mile at times during casual runs. I run a bit harder, yes, but the fact I can run a bit harder and sustain it--for far for up to 3.3 miles--is telling in itself.

It was my 5K Saturday when it happened--when I heard the magic "ten minutes..." in my headphones. That I had completed a mile anywhere with a 10 in it told me something. One of my running friends commented to me once that "ten minute miles are the stuff of dreams." I agree. Ten is fast. I reiterate that the reason we may think it's normal is that those are the numbers we always hear. We only hear about the under 10-minute mile runners because they win. In smaller races the 10 minute mile runners might win. We don't hear about the normal people who run in the middle of the pack and finish well. But that's what normal is.

So Saturday I was stunned. It was hot. It was somewhat hilly. Those two factors alone slow people down. What was I doing shooting off like a cannon?

Sunday I got up to run again--late. So hot. I was certainly slower than Saturday, but not as slow as most post-race tired runs. Then Monday. Even faster. And then Tuesday. Bam. I nailed it. Fastest 5K of my life outside of a race--in 80 degrees in my hilly neighborhood. That's when I knew something had given. Wednesday was my rest day because I have ballet Tuesday nights and I will normally teach at 8 a.m. Wednesday, so it was logical. But I couldn't stand it. After work, I went back to the university and to the indoor track, where I PRed my mile--in just over 9 minutes.

So what changed it? Training in the heat and hills? Absolutely. That has helped and will help. This fall I will be better. Just as I was ready for spring because I didn't wimp out in the cold winter, even when I was so cold I couldn't warm up. I'm thinking of two 8-milers I did where I never got warm after eight miles. I couldn't afford the nice clothes I needed for cold, but I couldn't afford not to run, so I ran anyway. I ran with a Facebook banner that said "A strong spring is earned in the winter." And so it was.

But cutting two minutes off a casual mile isn't likely just training. And in my case I think it was iron.

The night I got to town I went to a running meeting. I don't generally care for running groups. I am a solo runner and the only time I like to run with people is in races, but I went to hear it, perhaps hoping I would like it and want to connect more. The speaker was a running coach who the weekend before had run 3 5Ks and won all three--he's one of those. He was talking about iron levels at some point--about days he had been feeling sluggish and how he got his checked. I thought about my own sluggishness--which isn't just being tired or lazy. You know when your body itself is physiologically not performing and it's not because you stayed up too late or ate junk. Still, I had been tested in the past--years ago, but I am one that every test always comes out okay. I am so very healthy (and thankful for my health) usually that when something is wrong it just sticks out big time.

Later I bought a cheapo iron supplement. I wasn't spending a ton of money if I didn't need it. Allegedly if I had a deficiency it would be obvious. For a couple weeks I took one every night. Then I upped it to two. A lot of people say cheap vitamins are worthless, but that's actually not what lab tests show (and no, I am not interested in your multi-level marketing special patented running formula vitamins for 9 times the price I am paying now, but thanks) when they are run. Usually they end up being about the same, but iron does have to be absorbed right, so I had somewhere upped it to three, I think the week before. I won't go into details here in a public blog, but I had begun to have some physiological side effects of taking iron (normal ones, not bad ones) which I actually thought were the result of my taking extended antibiotics for my one non-healthy area, my sick tooth. It was about then that I suspect it was beginning to work.

The night before my record breaking 5K, I took four iron tablets. I will do stuff like that before a race, more out of superstition. I.e. you do not need to carbo load before a 5K--three miles does not need extra carbohydrates--but I do it anyway. It's all psychological. I often take one extra inhaler puff, though two is all that is ever needed. So I took one more iron tablet.

It took me a few days to put it together. But I think it's the iron. Plus, if I am taking a cheaper one, it's harder to absorb possibly--still good but it might take an extra one. And last night I did some research. I found a really interesting article with supporting academic research studies. If you go to this page from the National Institutes of Health, you can read this overview of iron supplementation.

Here's the magic section that floored me:

Women. Distance runners. That would be me, twice over. And though I am not a vegetarian, I do have a diet that leans more toward that. I do not eat a lot of red meat, and my other meat portions are small. It made perfect sense. Even if I would have tested okay in the past, I am depleting more. Duh. Duh. Duh.

One of the studies cited by the NIH is this one. I have not read the entire study yet because I will have to obtain it via my university since it will be in a database, but it supports the athletic premise of the need for more iron by conducting a study on the iron depletion of competitive swimmers.

It is possible to get too much iron. If you feel slow and sluggish, taking a lot of iron supplements will not make you magically fast. It could actually hurt you. This post is my experience and I haven't even confirmed it yet biologically, though I would probably wager a bet on it at this point. But you cannot generalize someone's experience; I am simply sharing it in case you want to be tested if you are a very regular distance runner and possibly do have long-term unexplained sluggishness. I have not had health insurance so my options to test my iron levels correctly did not exist. I can now, but I won't go off the supplement. However, if I test just fine on it, then that will say something in itself. My point here is that taking iron won't make you faster or stronger if you don't have a depletion (and unless you are running a lot, you probably didn't make extra depletion happen, but I do run enough that I would). So before you try this, get checked out and also read up on iron toxicity. But the bottom line for me is that it seems to have solved a problem. I had noticed I was getting more sluggish more often, which seemed unusual since that's usually an off and on thing. Everyone has sluggish days. Without questions, that is normal. Most likely as I was establishing a normal routine again and pushing my body harder, that's what was going on. Adding the iron deficiency with the consistent training in the heat and on hills was probably just a formula all together to help me. 

Tomorrow I have a longer run and I am going to purposely do it slower. But I am doing it with the iron! Last night I ordered more from the company I prefer to use when I find a good vitamin. If it works, it works. And for me, it sure seems to be a key. 

This week my runs have been incredible--and I don't just mean the speed. I mean, I have felt like a cannon blasted out of a cave that flies down the road. I beam with delight at the act of running. There are moments I forget I am running and my arms are swinging and I feel like I am flying down the road. Suddenly I feel like Iron Girl.

Iron Girl in Pink Magic, of course.

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