Health/XC Running: How Low Iron Affects Anaerobic Training

Dick Moss, Editor

Most coaches are aware that iron deficiency can affect aerobic performance. Iron is a component of hemoglobin, the substance responsible for binding with oxygen and helping to transport it through the bloodstream to muscles.

So, it's logical that low iron would hurt aerobic performance — coaches who see an unexplained drop in distance running times often suspect low iron.

However, in some cases the first noticeable effect of low iron is a decline in an athlete's anaerobic performance. For example, an athlete may have trouble maintaining pace during fast interval sessions,  or recover slowly from intense efforts. This doesn't seem like a logical effect of insufficient hemoglobin, and it can lead coaches to suspect problems other than low iron.

Effects of Iron on Anaerobic Performance
There is a logical reason for this decrement in anaerobic performance. Iron is also a component of "alpha glycero phosphate oxidase," a muscle enzyme that's responsible for breaking down lactic acid.

When iron is low, this enzyme is also in short supply, causing lactic acid to build up more quickly in muscles after intense exercise. As a result, low iron can also cause a decline in anaerobic performance.


1.  John Davis, Modern Training and Physiology for Middle and Long-Distance Runners, Running Writings, 2013.
2.“Keeping in Peak Condition, The Mirkin Report, November 1997.

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