Every runner's diet is wildly different, but there is one ingredient that binds all high school cross country girls together: iron. For females, running upwards of 40 miles a week takes a heavy toll on our bodies and most importantly, our iron levels. My teammates and I all love different foods, from sushi to tamales, but we all have to find some way to incorporate iron into our diets, whether it be directly taking iron supplements or eating more red meat and green vegetables.
During the track season of my freshman year of high school, I was racing horribly. All of the momentum from my fall cross country season had been lost and during the spring, I had to give up my varsity spot because my times were so lackluster. Extremely discouraged and with no clear solution in sight, I thought about quitting competitive running. And then, on the first day of summer training, my coach had found a solution.
"What are your iron levels?" she had demanded.
"What does iron have to do with how I run?" It seemed absurd that a single ingredient could be the cause of my lack of improvement. However, as I did more research, I learned that iron is a key component of oxygen transport in the human body. Suddenly, it all made sense. I tested my iron levels the next week. It turned out, I was on the brink of being anemic and I didn't even know. The entire time, I had been scolding myself for not training hard enough when it turned out my regression was actually out of my control. I started taking liquid iron supplements and began making a conscious effort to incorporate more iron into my diet naturally. I ate more spinach, broccoli, and steak and even asked my mom to start cooking with an iron skillet instead of an aluminum one. At first, I hated the taste of iron, but after a week or two of scrunching my nose every time I consumed it, I came to appreciate the coppery, tangy flavor. Within a month, I noticed a drastic difference in my running. I could run longer and faster without becoming light-headed. My legs no longer felt like lead. Iron had single-handedly saved my high school running career. It was empowering to know that it wasn't my fault I hadn't been doing well, that my persistence and willpower would finally pay off. My sophomore year of high school was the first time every single person on my team had healthy iron levels. It was also the first time my team had represented our high school at the California cross country state meet in over five years. The accomplishment will always be important to each of us and is a highlight of all of our high school memories. And it was all thanks to iron.
"Were you once iron deficient too?" is a simple question that holds a deeper meaning to every female runner. It represents the struggle we each had to go through to find ourselves as athletes again. It shows our strength and determination as females in one of the most brutal sports out there. I have met dozens of runners with the same story of recovery as mine and these experiences bring all of us together. Now, whenever I see a new member on my team struggling, I ask if they take iron and most of them have the same initial reaction as I did*. The satisfaction I feel when I notice their discouragement disappear as their running improves, replaced by a newfound sense of hope, is as fulfilling as it is unifying. Everyone who does distance running is a hero in their own way, but iron lets us females feel like we are true iron women.
*Disclaimer: I am not a physician. If you are reading this and wish to take iron, please consult your physician first.