The 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.