Becoming Blood Brothers and Sisters

Posted by Filed Under: Health & Fitness

phsyiologically speakingThe American Red Cross estimates that half the U.S. population is eligible to donate blood, but only 5 percent ever does. Some of us are scared; some of us are busy; and some of us worry about a donation’s effect on exercise.

Removing a pint of blood does have immediate and residual impact on workouts. But with proper preparation and realistic expectations, it’s possible to help save lives and still reach a running goal.

The first step to donating is to find out if you’re even eligible. If you qualify, it’s important to drink and eat well both prior and after an appointment. In particular, make sure you’re hydrated and getting enough iron in your diet—low-iron is a common disqualifier. During flu season, active use of antibiotics also hurts prospects.

Most exercise experts advise athletes to use a blood donor day as a rest day—not taxing the body physically. And take it easy if you work out a day later. Because the effects may impact performance for awhile, some runners may want to time a donation a month or more out from a big race. Some not at all. A lot depends on their level of athleticism.

Rule of thumb: elite runners should not give blood; competitive runners should give only in the off-season. That group includes high school and collegiate runners. However, recreational and casual runners should be fine to donate as often as every eight to 12 weeks. Just don’t expect to return to “normal” workouts for at least a few days, maybe even weeks.

“The loss of hemoglobin will have its greatest effect when cardiac demands are the greatest—during high-intensity workouts. The impact will decrease as intensity decreases, so the impact on an easy run should not be significant. Because blood donation will affect your ability to train intensely for a while, you don’t want to do this right before a race. It takes about 120 days for the body to make new red blood cells—the cells which contain hemoglobin,” according to Cathy Fieseler, M.D. on the Web site Runners Web, which has a section devoted to blood donations.

Adds Maryland sports physician Gabe Markin on his Fitness & Health with Dr. Mirkin blog:

You should not donate blood more often than every eight weeks because it takes that long to replace lost nutrients. If you donate blood frequently, you need to make sure to replace the B vitamins and possibly the iron that you lose with the blood. You can meet your needs for iron by eating meat, fish or chicken or by taking iron supplements; and you can meet your needs for the B vitamins with whole grains and diary products.

There’s more good news, too, for those that give blood. “Donating blood at least four times a year may help to prevent heart attacks by lowering blood cholesterol levels significantly and reducing iron levels. Iron in the bloodstream converts LDL cholesterol to oxidized LDL, which forms plaques in arteries,” Markin wrote.

About Anne

Anne’s been running for so long that when two paths diverge in the woods, not only she does she know to go for the one with the most foreboding weeds, swarms of bees and steep, rocky climbs, but she convinces everyone else to come along. Then, before people are done cursing and nursing insect bites, bloody knees and poison oak outbreaks, she’ll again run — away. She eschews a lot of the newfangled devices that are supposed to make you a better runner because she believes it’s what you put into your body, not on it, that really matters. (Footwear is the exception.) That includes proper nourishment of the mind, which we all know is what really makes the difference on the road…and the trail…and the track. At some point she started to realize that not everyone has run into an Alaskan grizzly bear, been pegged by police as a robber, lost her shorts in a major marathon, rubbed elbows with Olympians, mistaken movie stars for beach bums and watched a wildfire consume her suburb - yes, while she was on a long run. Whether it’s these unique situations, or the universal ones every recreational runner encounters, after she lives it, she loves nothing better than to write about it at Run DMZ.

  1. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on February 20th at 7:03 am

    I do not donate blood. I am not an elite athlete by any stretch of the imagination, but I am definately a competitive athlete. My ramp up and training to a marathon, and then my recovery from the marathon, does not leave me with enough time throughout the year to be eligible to donate. My Autumn and Spring marathons tend to be too close together, and the time between my Spring and Autumn marathons is full of shorter races and harder training. The few times that I have had a long enough break between Autumn and Spring I have inevitably wound up on antibiotics.

    It is something that I think about each year, but I never wind up being able to actually go through with it for one reason or another. My “off-season” is usually a few weeks after each marathon when I ramp up my weight lifting regimens.

  2. Jeanne on February 20th at 5:47 pm

    anne, thanks for writing on this important subject. Let’s hope none of us ever need to be on the receiving end…

  3. Mark Iocchelli on February 20th at 6:30 pm

    That’s really interesting. I have often wondered about the long-term effects of giving blood on running performance.

    Years ago, I used to donate regularly. I have O+ blood – I’m a universal donor (anyone can take my blood). They used to have me on a call back list to come in every 12 weeks.

    But I’ve never given while marathon training. I think I’ll avoid that till I’m not on that kind of schedule.

    Thanks for this, Anne.

  4. Perry on February 21st at 5:39 am

    I donated blood in late January and then just completed the Tampa Bay marathon last weekend. I think the blood donation definitely made it harder to train for about a week after. Maybe that’s why I missed a PR.

  5. Anne on February 21st at 6:44 am

    I used to give blood whenever I was called every 56 days, but I also wasn’t competitively running. However, the last few donations have really taken a lot out of me — scarring in the veins, for instance, from so many needle insertions — and it now takes longer for me to recover. So, I’ve become more selective about when I give, making sure I’m only in the recovery or base phase of training and not at a critical point leading up to an important race.

    Mark, I wasn’t able to find what percentage of the Canadian population gives blood, but it’s probably about the same — and for the same reasons.

  6. Aaron Engelsrud on February 21st at 9:53 pm

    The timeliness of this article is amazing to me. I only wish I had thought to write it myself…

    One year ago I had routine surgery to have my gallbladder removed. The surgery was done laproscopically and I was sent home the next day. A week later (February 28th, 2006) I was back in the hospital, weak, and slowly bleeding to death internally. It seems that during the normal course of my surgery my aorta was punctured and I had developed a Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm.

    I was lucky. I got fixed up (a stent was placed in my aorta) and I survived – but not before requiring MULTIPLE blood transfusions.

    So – to all of you who donate blood – I thank you and my wife and three kids thank you too. You saved my life.


  7. Jon (was) in Michigan on February 22nd at 6:06 am

    I’m not sure I agree with Markin’s conclusions about donating blood where:

    “Donating blood at least four times a year may help to prevent heart attacks by lowering blood cholesterol levels significantly and reducing iron levels. Iron in the bloodstream converts LDL cholesterol to oxidized LDL, which forms plaques in arteries,”

    You need iron. Iron makes your blood work. If you have excessive iron, that may lead to other problems, but I seriously doubt that you will have any *permanent* drop in iron levels by donating 4 times a year. And to say that dropping iron levels prevents heart attacks because iron oxidizes LDL is a gross overstatement of what is happening in your blood stream, and smacks of the 3-line cause-and-effect articles in Shape, Men’s Health, and (unfortunately now) RW. By this logic, we should all be heading out for blood-letting 3 times a week to remove all that heart-attack-causing iron from our bodies. Welcome to 1700’s medicine.

    Likewise, any small drop in cholesterol will be quickly adjusted by your liver to bring you back to wherever you were before. Your body isn’t going to suddenly change its cholesterol making habits just because it lost some blood.

    Donate blood because it saves someone else’s life. My wife needed blood while she was in the hospital, and we are very thankful someone donated. I donate whenever I can and am slowly approaching my thirteenth gallon. Its the right thing to do.