To Give or Not to Give?
by Ron Marinucci, Mar. 31, 2011
To Give or Not to Give?
To give or not to give? For many runners deciding whether or not to donate blood, that is the question.
Almost constantly, we hear reports of “dangerously low” blood supplies, of “serious shortages” of blood. It’s clear more blood donations are needed, but how are runners affected?
Practically anyone can donate. There are a few restrictions such as age (at least 17) and weight (110 or more pounds). Potential donors must pass a simple hemoglobin test (no studying required!) and generally be in good health. At most drives, donors can be in and out in an hour or so.
But, as noble as it is, donating blood raises special concerns for runners and other athletes who train intensely. Most questions revolve around performance, both in training and in races, and recovery.
A typical donation is one pint, about 10% of a person’s total blood volume. Within 48 hours, most people have replenished the volume of fluid lost in a donation. But it can take up to 8 weeks to fully recover all of the lost blood cells, with their hemoglobin.
The hemoglobin delivers oxygen to muscles, essential, of course, to physical activity. Normal daily activities usually are not affected much, if at all, after a donation. But in running and other athletic endeavors, the body’s oxygen supply is outstripped by its demand for oxygen.
Because they are in good shape, runners are prime candidates to donate blood. But Dr. Bruce Newman, the regional medical director for the Southeast Michigan Red Cross, urged caution and common sense. He has studied and presented papers on the subject of blood donation and recovery.
“For the recreational runner,” he said, “don’t do it [running] right away. Maybe wait two days.” It takes those 48 hours to restore the volume of liquid. “Recreational runners should realize that donating is not much of an issue for them. They’ll be more tired, perhaps, for up to 72 hours. Just take it easy the day of donating.” But it’s a different story with the red cells.
Some people, Dr. Newman suggested, take three to five weeks to replace a unit of donated blood. “But it can take longer.” In fact, he noted, “some don’t [replace it] in 8 weeks.” Iron deficiency might further delay recovery and restoration.
For that reason, he doesn’t recommend donations for “competitive runners or others in hard sports such as soccer…anything that requires maximum effort. It can definitely decrease your performance if you’re an elite runner.” For instance, “the high school cross country season is not the time to donate. You’re going to be affected.” That goes not only for racing, but also the intense efforts of hard training. Earlier, he advised against donation “if competitive running is planned within 8 weeks. I wouldn’t give during heavy training, either.”
Dr. Newman’s advice is reflected in runners’ personal experiences. Bill Guisinger, from Birmingham, confirmed, “I have been donating blood for many years without any adverse effects. But I never donate before or after a race.” He added, “It’s always good to take in more fluids than normal after donating.”
Clio runner Riley McLincha has had similar experiences, having been “a regular blood donor.” He recalled one instance. “Previously, I had given blood in the morning and then ran that evening and never noticed a problem.” Then, “in 2001, I gave blood on Monday and ran the Freep the next Sunday. Only five miles into the marathon, I was dragging. It wasn’t until after the marathon, which I finished, but walked quite a bit after mile 20, that I put it together: It might have been because I gave blood a few days before. But I wasn’t sure because I had given before and ran the same day, same intensity, and done fine.” But not a marathon….
Stu Allen has been a Flint-area runner for 13 years. He noted, “I have been a blood donor for as long as I have been eligible to donate. Donating whole blood seems to have a negative effect on my running for about a week afterward, due to the diminished amount of oxygen-carrying red cells lost in the donation process.” I usually don’t plan any races or hard runs in the week that I plan to donate.” He added, “For the last few years I have been donating platelets and plasma through the Red Cross. I can donate more often, up to 24 times a year, and my favorite part is that, since I get my red blood cells back, I can train hard after about a 24-hour recovery period.”
I’ve had similar experiences, ones that fit Dr. Newman’s scenarios. Short, easy runs within a few days of donating have been no problem. I’ve even raced 5Ks and 10Ks shortly afterward with no ill effects. But a few years ago, I ran the Crim 10 Mile as a guide runner for my blind buddy Michael Holmes. He had a time goal, a reasonable one, and we were well on pace to meet or beat it. Then, on Miller Road, I remember distinctly, between miles 7 and 8, I crashed. I’ve hit the wall, hard, in a marathon and that’s exactly what this Crim felt like to me. We finished, but for Michael I felt terrible. But I just couldn’t go any faster or, for a while, at all without walking. Like Riley, it took me a couple of days to make the connection between donating and racing since I’d never had difficulties before.
Ironically, there is some anecdotal evidence that within two to three weeks of donating blood, good race times can be achieved. No scientific research backs this yet, but it has been suggested that this is a natural form of blood-doping. In rebuilding the supply of red blood cells, the body overcompensates, creating extra cells. These extras then carry more oxygen to active muscles before finding their state of equilibrium. It should be noted that blood-doping has been outlawed by organizations such as the International Olympic Committee. It is also dangerous.
But for most runners, donating blood is safe—and a charitable thing to do. Moderate exercise such as easy running should not be affected. Maximal performance can be curtailed, but usually returns to normal in a few weeks, surely within a month or so.
Just take the common sense advice of Dr. Newman. Don’t plan races or intense workouts immediately after donating. If it’s a big or long race, allow a few weeks for recovery. Use donation day as a rest day. Follow the guidelines for rehydrating, perhaps for an extra day or two. There’s no need to avoid your local blood drive.
Runners can find local donation sites by calling their regional American Red Cross centers. They can also check the ARC Web site at www.semredcross.org.