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Expert Q&A: Are there benefits to getting your blood tested as a runner?

Blood tests for runners: are there benefits?

Several companies offer blood testing for runners – a service that they argue provides a window into exactly what is going inside your body.

What exactly is the benefit?

We first spoke with Jonathan Levitt, sales manager from Inside Tracker, a Boston-based company that provides blood testing, before talking to two independent professional running coaches and certified trainers to get their take on the value of this process.

What do runners stand to gain from blood testing?
Levitt: Everyone absorbs nutrition and deals with the impact of training and recovery differently. For some, eating meat once a week is enough for iron levels, for others, it’s not. By looking internally and through bloodwork, we can see the impact of the food you’re eating, the training you’re doing and how your body is handling it. And more importantly, what you can do to improve.

What comes from your company’s blood testing that you normally would not get from blood testing done by your physician for an annual physical?
At InsideTracker, what we do is provide highly individualized recommendations based on your height/weight/age/gender and most importantly activity level, based on nutrient and hormone levels in your blood. To do this, we recommend specific foods to eat more or less of, as well as lifestyle related recommendations (try this exercise, sleep more, etc) with the goal of helping to increase performance, recovery and overall health.

What areas of testing are significantly important for runners to improve performance and endurance?
Even something as simple as vitamin D (more than 80 percent of our users are low/deficient in their first test) can have an impact on improving power, recovery, and mood. We look at other markers related to energy levels, endurance, and sleep quality.

What are the cost ranges for the testing and what do you get out of that?
It ranges from $99 to $499, depending on how much information you’re looking to receive. This includes the cost of the blood test, access to our web-based platform for guidance, and access to our science and nutrition team –which includes a track/high performance coach, a registered dietitian, and more. We also have an option to simply upload data from a test with a physician.

In addition to just the result of blood testing, what do runners get with those results?
We create a custom plan based on your goals, and recommend specific foods to eat more or less of, supplements to consider, as well as lifestyle changes that will help you achieve your goals. Our users will see different recommendations each time they test, as things ideally should be changing.

What deficits are runners most prone to that are revealed in blood testing and how are those usually improved?
Low vitamin D is huge, as is high glucose, very common in endurance athletes. More fiber is one of our most common recommendations, along with vitamin D supplementation. Low testosterone comes up somewhat regularly as well. A better emphasis on recovery/sleep along with a couple of other tweaks can help boost it.

So what did our trainers and coaches have to say about blood testing? We shared Levitt’s responses with Theresa Kavouras – an independent Team Beach Body Coach in Minnesota and running coach – and Meredith O’Brien – USA Track and Field Level I Coach, Crossfit Endurance Coach, and ACSM Certified Personal Trainer – and asked them the following questions.

In your experience and research, what underlying health issues for a runner might show up in a blood test and how might that be addressed?
Kavouras: Blood tests can almost be the “combination to the lock” as far as underlying health issues are concerned. Any person, runner or not, can have symptoms of one condition which might lead to the presence of another, and not even realize it. Symptoms such as fatigue, sleep disorders, frequent injuries, muscle cramping, and even IBS, thanks to overfueling with glucose, can be revealed in a simple blood test.

O’Brien: There are myriad things that can show up through blood testing. Anything from poor nutrition to high cholesterol, all of which can play a role in successful training. I’d agree with Jonathan that vitamin deficiencies are probably most common and those can easily be fixed through diet and nutrition.

When would you recommend a runner get a blood test?
Kavouras: If you are a runner seeking a specific goal, such as qualifying for Boston, for example, but it seems like too much of a long shot for you because of how you feel on a day-to-day basis, then I would highly recommend a blood test. Sometimes the system just needs a little tweak to enhance performance, repair a blood/brain connection, or improve circulation, sleep issues, or cardiovascular issues. Certainly, if symptoms of one kind or another keep you from running at your typical level for an extended period of time, even after sufficient rest, then a blood test will likely provide some answers.

O’Brien: The information gathered from a blood test can be valuable to any runner at any level. Your body’s needs will change as your fitness level increases with training or decreases after an injury and having some information on exactly what is going on will help speed healing. Because a lot of the issues found through a blood test are nutrition related, problems recovering from workouts or generally having symptoms of over training are big signs that you should look into what’s happening inside your body.

What types of foods or lifestyle habits (sleep, alcohol, etc.) might show up in a blood test that would explain poor running or athletic performance, and how might that be addressed?
Kavouras: High blood sugar (from too much glucose), low Vitamin D, low magnesium, high creatine kinase, high cortisol, testosterone, inflammation … all of these can tell a lot about a runner from why they are always feeling exhausted to why they are injury prone. High levels of inflammation, for example, would mean too much glucose and simple sugars in the system. Low magnesium could lead to severe muscle cramping. High creatine kinase could mean you are overtraining. And cortisol levels are the tell tale sign of so many issues including sleep disorders and being injury prone.

O’Brien: I’m not sure if your sleep patterns alter your blood beyond increased blood pressure caused by a lack of sleep.  We all know alcohol has a negative effect on training, from recovery to sleep, nutrition and mental state. Most people live in a chronic state of some level of dehydration and that will definitely pop on a blood test. It’s impossible to train or race at your best without being properly hydrated. Like not getting enough water will show on a blood test, so will poor eating habits through a lack of nutrients in the blood.

So is it worth it?
Kavouras: When I couldn’t determine why I couldn’t get up and run without excruciating effort, and I began to fear the worst, a blood test revealed very high cortisol levels and high creatine kinase, which basically said adrenal fatigue. Changing up my supplements, fixing my sleep issues, and realigning my diet all helped to pull me out of that hole. Granted, it takes months, not days, to fix most blood issues, but at least you have answers. And for a runner, nothing is better than an answer to why you can’t perform as usual, even if it means some down time to fix it.   

O’Brien: There’s definitely value in getting a blood test to help determine what might be holding you back. For most people I’d say a small investment (up to $150) to get started isn’t unreasonable. From there, I’d base additional testing on the individual client’s needs and goals.