A blog by runners. For runners.

How giving blood affects your running


My husband and I drove by our local hospital last weekend, past a very long stretch of white and red signs calling for community members to donate blood. I’ve always considered giving blood to be such a generous gift to give to strangers, such a noble act — and yet I’ve never done it myself, mostly out of fear of needles. (I know I need to grow out of it!)

Stephen, on the other hand, has a different history with staying away from blood donation. He was completely scared off in high school when his cross-country coach scolded a fellow teammate for donating just days before the much-anticipated state meet. It only makes sense that giving up a volume of blood — however large or small — could take away from the hard work of training. In a way, it’s the antithesis of blood doping we hear so much about in the news.

But is this a reason for runners to avoid donation entirely? I vowed to learn more about the process and how it impacts health and conditioning from a running perspective.

Here’s a bit of what I’ve discovered so far.

  • Some science: “Red blood cells contain hemoglobin, which carries oxygen molecules from your lungs to your muscles.” So, when donating units of blood, the body loses hemoglobin and less oxygen gets to muscles. In turn, your pace will likely suffer and you’ll feel more fatigued on the run. (Source)
  • “Everyone responds to blood donation differently” and impacts can range from “higher heart and breathing rates [to] heavy legs and lower levels of energy.” Interestingly, there are actually four types of blood donation. So it’s important to take stock and find what’s right for you. If you suffer from “anemia, micro-nutrient deficiencies,
    autoimmune disorders,
    or any other health issue that drains you,” talk to your doctor about the type that might work best in your situation. (Source)
  • “According to medical experts, your body replaces the red cells [that are lost during donation] within about 2 weeks.” Planning workouts and races accordingly around this schedule is important for optimum performance and general health.  (Source)
  • There are measures runners can undertake to speed recovery after donation, too. It’s a good idea to bulk up on “the necessary building
    blocks — specifically protein and iron — to replace the lost
    Eating foods rich in protein and iron should do the trick. (Source)

A general consensus among the runners I informally polled for this article suggests that waiting in-between training cycles truly is the way to go. (For example, a couple weeks after a big race and — again — before the next cycle begins.) If that’s not an option, avoid donating before a particularly taxing workout, like a 20 mile run, and prepare to feel sluggish for a while — up to two weeks. Even then, your blood volume may be back up to “normal” levels, but that blood isn’t as “trained” (oxygen-rich); getting back to old performance levels may take even longer.

In the end, I have learned that runners can give blood so long as they plan wisely, both for the act and recovery. It’s a very individual process, so — again — if you are wary at all, chat with your doctor before offering up your arm. Perhaps someday (soon) I might stop just admiring those people who choose to give and become one myself.

 Written by  Ashley Marcin.