What Are Your Vitamin D Levels and Other Important Testing for Runners and Triathletes

I hope that you are all psyched for achieving your goals for 2015! I know that I am! I came within 27 seconds of attaining my marathon goal for 2014 (3:05) and this year I want to achieve that goal and get closer to my ultimate marathon goal (breaking 3 hours)! Not bad for a guy who was repeatedly told by his cross-country coach that he had no talent.

Last month I talked about goal setting. In this article I want to talk about the importance of having a checkup and blood work done before you get too far into your training for 2015. This is important because you want to insure that you don’t have conditions that could lead to serious injuries or health issues that could put you out of training for several months or longer. So, if you haven’t done this recently, I recommend meeting with your physician for a checkup and to have blood work done. You should be assessed for the presence of heart disease and/or risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure and diabetes. Back in the 1980s there was a runner named Jim Fixx who died while out on a run. Jim helped me get into running with his book The Complete Book of Running. Jim had been a smoker throughout his life and his family had a history of heart disease. Jim took up running to improve his health and he helped get many others into running, including myself with his books. Unfortunately, he had heart disease and died one day on a run. He was 40 when he died.

In addition to being checked for heart disease or heart disease risk factors, women who are postmenopausal, or who are pre-menopausal and have irregular or no menstrual cycles, as well as anyone who is especially thin, should be assessed for bone mineral density. Low bone mineral density, referred to as osteopenia or osteoporosis, can increase the risk of fractures.

Finally, you should also have blood work done to check for the following:

– Lipid (cholesterol) profile

– Fasting blood glucose (sugar) levels

– Complete blood count (CBC), which includes testing for red blood cell (RBC) count, hemoglobin, and hematocrit (the percentage of blood composed of red blood cells)

– Levels or concentration of ferritin, which is a measure of your body’s iron reserves

– Vitamin D levels

– Cortisol levels

Lipid profile and fasting blood glucose levels are important, however the focus of the rest of this article will be on red blood cell count, iron, vitamin D, and cortisol. I will talk more about cholesterol and blood glucose sugar in future articles relating to nutrition.

Red blood cell count and iron

Why are red blood cell and iron levels important?

– Red blood cells and iron play vital roles in carrying oxygen to your exercising muscle, as well as other tissues

– Lower than normal levels of these can result in iron deficiency anemia, which can result in fatigue, heart rates higher than normal at lower exercise intensities, shortness of breath, sluggishness, light-headedness, paleness, loss of appetite, poor recovery, and subpar performance

What causes iron deficiency?

– Diminished dietary iron intake

– Excessive iron losses

– Often occurs in women up to the age of 50 because of iron losses every month during menstruation

– Those who are on a vegetarian diet may be at higher risk

– Running can contribute to iron deficiency because of loss of iron in sweat and through breakdown of red blood cells (hemolysis) that occurs through repeated landing of the feet on hard surfaces, an increased speed of red blood cell movement through the bloodstream, and acidosis from high-intensity training

– Iron-deficiency anemia affects 3-5% of all women in the U.S.

– 26-60% of female athletes are affected by iron deficiency

What if you are iron deficient?

– Talk to your healthcare provider about taking an iron supplement

– Adequate diet including daily intake of iron-rich heme and non-heme foods

– Heme (more readily absorbable form of iron) foods include: red meat and dark poultry

– Non-heme foods include: dried fruit, dark greens, beans, whole grains, and soy foods

– Increase absorption of iron by including foods containing vitamin C

– Consider using a cast-iron skillet for cooking acidic foods such as spaghetti sauce

– Cook foods for a short amount of time in a minimal amount of water

– Consume iron-fortified foods

– For vegetarians consume plenty of legumes, nuts, and seeds and foods rich in vitamin C

Vitamin D – Vitamin D is vital for numerous functions in the body. Sunlight initiates vitamin D synthesis in the body. However, because it is February, vitamin D will not be produced in high enough levels due to sun exposure only. Last February when I had my vitamin D levels checked I was surprised to find how low my levels were. So I have had to use a vitamin D supplement to help raise my levels.

Why is vitamin D important?

– For absorption of calcium for bone health

– Vitamin D contributes to a variety of other important functions in the body too extensive for this article!

– Some research has suggested relationships between vitamin D intake and cancer prevention, increased immunity, and blood glucose regulation

How Do We Get Adequate Vitamin D?

– Sunlight

– Fatty fish, such as salmon (I highly recommend wild caught) and tuna, and foods fortified with vitamin D

– Supplements


What is cortisol?

– A major stress hormone

– Regulator of the immune system

– Can negatively impact sleep, mood, bone health, ligament health, cardiovascular health, and running performance

– Primary function is to increase the breakdown of muscles in the body, inhibits the uptake of glucose into the body’s cells, and increases the breakdown of fats

What are the effects of higher than normal cortisol levels?

– Causes the body to be constantly breaking down muscle

– Causes suppression of the immune system

– Lowers levels of other important hormones including testosterone and DHEA (dehydroepiaandrosterone)

– Can increase risk of development of upper respiratory tract infections

What can cause increased levels of cortisol?

– Overtraining

– Training in a carbohydrate-depleted state (following a low-carbohydrate diet)

– High-intensity and long-duration training

Signs that your cortisol levels may be high, besides having these levels measured, include: mood swings, lack of motivation to run, and loss of muscle and appetite

How do you control cortisol levels?

– Daily nutrition is important which includes consuming enough carbohydrates to support your energy needs

– Research has also shown that including glutamine and branched chain amino acids (BCAA), which you can typically get by eating whole foods, during your post exercise nutrition plan can help

Please contact me at brian@denverrunningcoach.com if you have questions or comments.  I would love to hear from you!

See you on the road or trail,



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