How Nutrition Enhances Blood Volume for Better Workouts

This is an article I originally wrote for Spartan last year. Even if you aren’t headed to train in high altitude, inadequate blood volume can really make training more challenging. Enjoy the read and remember, you can always learn something!

My favorite quote has been written on my whiteboard for years now, and it goes like this: “Every time you go to bed late, sleep in, skip a workout, or ignore your diet, you improve my chances of beating you.”

In training, as in life, our focus, goals, and knowledge change over time. When I first read this quote, I was new to fitness. So I used it as a reminder to get as close to 8 hours of sleep as I could, try to get in more AM workouts, and focus on more nutritious foods.

Fast forward a few years to when I found Spartan Race, and once again this quote took on new meaning. Most recently, with my qualification to the Spartan World Championships in Tahoe, I’ve taken a deeper look into improved performance nutrition and new “obstacles” that may lie ahead. More specifically, I was worried about the possible effects that Squaw Valley’s higher altitude would have on my performance.

There are many articles, podcasts, and books you can read regarding high-altitude training. But I’m a dietitian, so my interest has revolved around the potential use of nutrition for elevation prep. Specifically, I’m curious about the decrease in blood volume that may occur when I leave my daily training altitude in Maine and head out to the higher elevation of Squaw Valley, CA.

Why blood volume? Because blood volume is related to iron, which is supported by the foods we eat.

What better place to start educating myself about altitude training than in our own Spartan Community. Racing at Altitude: What You Need to Know by Dr. Jeff Godin helped build a platform of knowledge for me. (In the article, he reviews the short and long term physiological responses to high altitude exposure. One of these effects is hypoxia, defined as the deficiency of oxygen reaching the tissue. Again, for more on this, read the article. You won’t regret it.)

But let’s look at how the right nutrition focus can put you in the best possible place to maximize blood volume. By doing so we give the body the best possible platform even when hypoxia is a risk.

Using Nutrition to Optimize Blood Volume

As we prepare for race day, we never know the true distance of the race, what obstacles we will encounter, and in what order they will be set. No problem, right? We train weekly to optimize all factors of the course, potential climbs and distances, and obstacle proficiency.

In the same way that this approach helps you prepare, you can do the same in your nutrition as you prep for high altitude. How? By eating enough of the right foods to ensure adequate blood volume for race day.

Think about it. Dr. Godin’s article speaks to the fact that a lower oxygen pressure gradient between the atmosphere and the body will lead to a reduction in the movement of oxygen into the body. Due to the reduced pressure gradient and lower level of saturated oxygen, we have less oxygen for the exercising muscle and a lowered capacity for aerobic exercise (Godin, 2015). Now, if we combine that with inadequate blood volume before we even arrive for the race, we are placing ourselves even further behind the eight ball.

The Key: Iron

Let’s refresh ourselves on the role of iron. Iron is a part of the red blood cells and assists in delivering oxygen to working tissue (read: muscle) as well as assist with actions within the body for the transfer of energy metabolism (Benardot, 2006).

Inadequate levels of iron in the body can result in decreased blood flow, delivering less oxygen to the muscles, and a resulting decrease in performance not only during a race, but throughout training sessions as well. It can manifest itself with feelings of fatigue on exertion and reduced muscle power.

Spartans have a demanding training schedule, typically with longer duration, higher intensity, larger workload, and hopefully a proper nutrition plan to support it. How do these factors affect iron levels? Here are a few examples:

  • Dilutional Pseudoanemia (aka Sports Anemia or Athletic Anemia) — the rise in blood volume and red blood cells that can occur when an athlete begins an intensive exercise program. Because the rise in blood volume increases faster than the increase of red blood cells, it appears as though the athlete has anemia. However, over time, the body adapts and the concentration returns to normal (Benardot, 2006).
  • Foot-strike Anemia — the breaking of capillaries in the foot as we get in our demanding runs. The breakdown occurs faster than the body can repair them.
  • Restrictive Diets — Between work, training, and daily life, it can sometimes be easiest to have a very simple menu from week to week. However, you need to plan for iron-rich foods. Since only a small percentage of iron from food is absorbed, the recommended range is set high. (Coffee or tea drinker? You may be absorbing even less. More on that later.)
  • Unbalanced Diets — Focusing on iron already? What about magnesium, zinc, folate, and B12? These vitamins and minerals assist the body in red blood cell production and help iron to do its job.
  • For the Ladies

    If the menstrual cycle overlaps a race, you’ve got yet another obstacle to overcome — but not just for obvious reasons. Blood loss through menstruation also affects overall blood volume. This is another reason to focus on nutrition.

  • Enough on cause and effect. Let’s talk solutions.

Here is how much iron you need to ingest, according to your sex:

  • Males: 16.3–18.2mg/day
  • Females: 12.6–13.5mg/day

Know the best sources.

You likely know that red meats and leafy greens contain iron, but don’t forget dates, raisins, beans, tofu, molasses, pork loin, shrimp, and fortified cereals.

All of these foods are good sources of iron as well:

  • Oysters
  • Beef Liver
  • Bison Meat
  • Beef
  • Cashews
  • Chickpeas
  • Chicken
  • Tuna
  • Eggs
  • Many ready-to-eat breakfast cereals are fortified with iron, and some fruits and vegetables contain iron, too (Clark, 1997).

Coffee addict? Tea drinker? Components of these drinks can inhibit iron absorption. There’s no need to give them up; just try to separate food intake from coffee or tea by at least an hour.

Read the full article by checking out this link: (copy and drop in browser)


How I Won Every Spartan Race

I have won every Spartan Race I’ve ever done

 And so have you. Have I always been on the podium? No. But I have still won. Whether you are out there to win, to prove something to yourself, or just finish, there is always a victory. Let me tell you about a few of my victories: 

Fenway Stadium Sprint 2013: My first race. My friend Jess had talked me into it, but I don’t think either of us knew what we were really getting into. Sound familiar? This is the story of most Spartans, especially those that raced before it became more popular. Back then, people were talking about it, it wasn’t on TV as a series, and it really didn’t seem to have made its way to Maine. But we did it. And in the end we were hooked. We are now stronger in every way. Sounds like a win to me!

Killington Beast 2014: My first Beast, and only my 2nd Spartan Race. 7 ½ hours later, with tears in my eyes from shear exhaustion, I crossed the finish line. I had been in the Open heat and had no clue (nor care) about the Elite division purpose, level of competition, or prizes. What I did know was that I had NEVER been through something like that before. I came out knowing that I WAS able to push myself beyond my perceived limits. How did I know? Because I thought I met said limit numerous times on that course. But somehow I went on. I was alone the entire race, but yet I was surrounded by people. I had yet to realize the community that I was in. So alone I went. With nothing but time on the course to discover myself. Then I met a new person on the other end. I met a new me. A stronger person than ever, with a newfound desire to get faster and more resilient. Sounds like another win.

 Rutland, MA Saturday Sprint 2017: I went into that day with a strong desire to win. About a mile in I was in third place. Then something happened. The pressure of the race got to me. The desire to win became overwhelming. So much that I didn’t want to deal with the thought of losing. For some reason, on that day, I let me worry get to me. But instead of putting mind over matter, I let myself be overcome. After falling off the Olympus, I pulled myself out of the race. It was terrible. I cried, I beat myself up inside. Then, I found a friend and person I had been coaching and I ran his race with him. I did every burpee with him, even though I had completed the obstacles. 210 burpees. It was a great race. By the end of it I had realized that I had stood in my own way of success. I had let what I loved take me down. I let that feeling sit with me, I accepted it, I learned from it, and I let it go. In the end I found a new strength and a new obstacle that I had to work to overcome. In my mind, that’s a win.

Rutland MA Sunday Sprint 2017: Same race as the day before, except this time my mind was ready. I had used the events from the day before to tell myself “never again”. Never again would I let pressure ruin what I love. I wouldn’t let the competition get to me. I would only run my own race the best I could. If I win, great. I I don’t, then I learn what I need to work on. So what happened that day? I won. Truly won. Took 1st place with a 3 minute lead over 2nd place.  Knowing the course from the day before didn’t help me any more than doing 210 burpess hurt me. It was knowing myself that got me across first.

I’ve had more podiums since then, and I hope to have more. But I take great pride and comfort in knowing that every Finisher medal hanging in my home gym is a win. So I ask you, how many races have you won?

The Food is Just the Symptom

Sometimes the hardest part of convincing a client to work with me (in this age of multiple internet resources on diet, diet plans, recipes, you name it), lies in the understanding that the limit to your success isn’t just in the food you eat. If reaching your goals was as easy as eating the right foods, we would have people limiting their performance potential, continually going on diets, or have an obesity epidemic. Because the truth is that the food is just the symptom. The real obstacle is behavior change. As a Dietitian, my education and experience goes far beyond knowing what nutrients are in the foods we eat. Over the years