09/18/2015 08:10 EDT | Updated 09/18/2016 05:12 EDT

Pump Up Your Running With a Dose of Iron

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Portrait of a woman starting the jogging.

When I think of spinach, I think of Popeye the Sailor representing strength and health. This leafy green vegetable is one example of a good source of iron that helps maintain a healthy lifestyle. For runners, a lack of iron can result in low energy and poor performance. If you are new to running and noticed feeling unexplained fatigue, you may be iron deficient.

Peak running performance and staying healthy depends on choosing the right foods. Therefore, fueling your body with the proper nutrients will keep your running on track. Crystal Higgins, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant with Nuvonutrition in B.C., offered some food choices to keep your iron levels balanced.

"Most protein sources will have some iron. However, when it comes to ensuring adequate iron most people think they need to start eating more red meat. Although it may be helpful, it is certainly not a necessity. Surprisingly, shellfish such as shrimp, clams, mussels and oysters have very comparable levels of absorbable 'heme' iron," Higgins says. "Other great sources of iron are pumpkin seeds, edamame, beans and lentils. If you're looking for a sweetener, try blackstrap molasses -- it has more iron in one tablespoon than in a half-cup cooked spinach.

"The key with iron absorption is to include more vitamin C-rich foods such as bell peppers, broccoli and citrus fruits to allow for better absorption. To maximize the iron from your food, avoid eating calcium-rich dairy products such as milk and yogurt or tannin-rich coffee and red wine. Tannins and calcium inhibit iron absorption. Women need more iron due to menstruation. Pregnant or lactating women will need even more. To be exact, pre-menopausal women need 18mg iron daily, and men need 8mg."

If you are training for a marathon, Higgins recommends ensuring that every meal and snack has a source of protein for optimal balance. "Hemp hearts are a great source of iron and go well over oatmeal, salads and homemade energy balls," she says. "Dark chocolate is a surprising source of iron -- I eat some daily. If I'm in a rush, iron-rich snacks such as Simply bars or Simply protein chips are great choices. For smoothies, I use a protein powder that has iron in it."

If you enjoy eating red meat, it is an excellent source of protein, niacin, vitamin B12, selenium and zinc, according to Canada Beef. It is also high in iron, riboflavin, vitamin B6 and phosphorus, and is a source of magnesium, potassium and vitamin D.

"The key is choosing the right foods in appropriate portions. For lunch and dinner, fill half of your plate with veggies. The other quarters should consist of a whole grain and three to four ounces of lean protein. Balance the meal with a glass of skim milk or yogurt and a piece of fruit," adds Higgins. "Low-fat dairy foods with fruit are ideal for runners as they contain a perfect balance of protein, fat, carbohydrates and naturally occurring electrolytes needed for high intensity activity. The key is to fuel yourself with foods that are easy to digest while providing enough carbohydrates to maintain your blood sugar levels.

"Runners should have some carbohydrate-containing foods 30 minutes after running," she continues. "Good choices include chocolate milk, cereal and milk, a banana, cubed melons, orange slices, yogurt, one half of a whole grain bagel, or a slice of toast with low-sugar fruit spread. Be sure to drink two to four cups of water to stay hydrated."

Everything in moderation is the key to following a well-balanced diet. For me, I like to have some coffee followed with a glass of water to keep hydrated. I will add my organic energy seed mix called Ra Energy onto my oatmeal and one of the seeds -- sesame has iron and calcium.


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