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Out There: The Blood Donor

Columnist Susan Lacke donates blood during training – is it a good idea?

Earlier this week, my local newspaper ran a story stating hospitals and blood banks nationwide had an “urgent need” for blood donations. Winter is typically a tough time for recruiting donors, but recent snowstorms around the country added insult to injury by forcing the cancellation of many blood drives.

“Hmm,” I thought to myself while reading the story, “I haven’t donated in a while. I should probably get on that.” I filed it away on my List of Good Intentions, alongside “daily core workouts” and “green juice cleanse.”

 Later that day, I was out for a run when I came upon a sidewalk sign with an arrow pointing to a nearby church: BLOOD DRIVE. FREE COOKIES.

If that wasn’t a sign from the universe, I don’t know what is. After all, I’ve been known to sign up for Ironman triathlons just for the promise of free cookies; 30 minutes and a pint of bodily fluid is easy work in comparison. I popped my head into the drive to schedule an appointment for that evening.

“We don’t get a lot of your kind here,” said the nurse as she swabbed iodine in the crook of my arm in preparation for the collection process.

My kind? I felt strangely self-conscious. What type was that? Female? 30-something? Brunette? Obnoxious? The nurse, Megan, pointed at the race shirt I was wearing: “Athletes.” As a fellow runner herself, Megan constantly heard a refrain of “Thanks, but no thanks” when she invited her training partners to donate blood at local drives.

“Why do you think that is?” I queried.

Megan shrugged. “Some have valid health reasons, like low iron levels. But most of them just don’t want it to affect their training.”

While pumping out my donation, I took to Twitter to ask athletes if they gave blood. Almost immediately, replies poured in:

“No way! HCT drop!”

“I always avoided it because of the impact to training.”

“It makes me feel drained for days.”

“It takes too long to recover!”

“I need all the red blood cells I can get.”

“Giving blood is basically giving away training. So I guess it depends on how one prioritizes that.”

I stared at the tweets on my phone, horrified. Was I making a mistake by donating? Would I suffer a training setback as a result of my simple desire to help others?

There’s not a ton of information to answer that question. Only a few studies on athletes and blood donation have been published, and most of those have studied cyclists, not runners. One study found maximal performance (or the ability to do hard efforts) of cyclists decreased for one week after blood donation, but submaximal efforts (in other words, easy to moderate efforts) were unaffected. In another study, researchers declared a single blood donation did not alter the physical fitness of healthy people.

But a different study claims there are effects on aerobic performance, and they could last between two and three weeks. That’s a long time to feel winded and sluggish.

Then again, I suppose that pales in comparison to, you know, being in a situation where I need blood. Despite my talent for doing dumb things that land me in emergency rooms, I’ve yet to be so critically injured or ill that a blood transfusion was required. For that, I’m thankful. I’ve been given a strong, healthy body. It seems rude to bogart it for the pursuit of a hobby when there are people who need blood to actually stay alive.

A Twitter friend, Chris, summed up my sentiments well: “Yes, I donate, but I run to slay my own demons, not beat other people.” Perhaps if my paycheck was tied to my mile splits, I’d feel compelled to protect my blood, but it’s not, so I’m willing to deal with the consequences of my decision to give it away.

And so far, those consequences have been minimal. In the days that have passed since my donation, I haven’t noticed that much of a difference in my workouts. A little bit of fatigue, yes, but nothing worse than what I feel after a long run on a hot day. If anything, I’ve enjoyed having an excuse to scale back my effort for a couple of days. I’ve scheduled my next donation already.

I’m not alone. Though many runners declared an aversion to blood donation (some by choice, some because of health issues), an additional set proudly boasted their donor status. They shared how they schedule blood donations during rest weeks, or donate only during the offseason and light training cycles (like right now, during the winter months, when donors are desperately needed). A couple runners swore by donating platelets only instead of whole blood, which has less of a physiological impact on the donor (and a huge positive impact on those who utilize the platelets, such as cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy).

Most donor-athletes said they feel tired for a day or two after giving blood, then bounce back full force. All said the feeling of saving lives outweighed the temporary fatigue. Let’s face it—most of us run around in spandex like superheroes; might as well take the opportunity to actually be one.

Also, did I mention there are free cookies?

If you’re healthy and able to donate blood, find a blood drive near you by contacting your local blood bank or visiting the American Red Cross website.

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About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). Susan lives and trains in Salt Lake City, Utah with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete husband. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke.