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Coaches Blog

Blood donations and endurance sports CAN mix!!

Updated: Jun 5, 2022

Photo Description: A photo of a blood donor sticker I was issued by the American Red Cross after my first donation after many years of having a broken arm that required multiple surgeries.

by Laura Henry

Greetings and welcome to Coach Tip Tuesday!!

This week, I want to share this tidbit with you:

Did you know that only 3% of eligible donors actually donate blood in the United States??

That’s right - THREE PERCENT of eligible donors. That means that 97% of eligible donors are not donating even once per year.

The need for blood donations is very real, and I can testify to this from personal experience. In 2014, my brother Joe was involved in a major cycling accident in which he lost 50% of his blood. Due to his high hemoglobin count, this percentage of blood loss did not immediately necessitate a blood transfusion, but he was 0.1 g/dL away from needing one. Had my brother needed a transfusion, his life would have been saved by a volunteer donor.

Many of the athletes who I’ve worked with over the years have donated blood. How do I know this, do you ask?? Well, many of them have donated blood, not told me about it, and then tried to do the planned workout on their schedule on the same day as the donation. (You know who you are out there. ;) ) What happens when they complete these events in that order is one of the following: they pass out (worst-case scenario), they get sick, they feel like crud during the workout, or the workout isn’t able to be executed anything close to how it was planned.

This obviously isn’t an ideal situation; we don’t want to take something that is wonderful and selfless (blood donation) and turn it into something that makes us feel weak and inadequate.

The impact of a blood donation on the body is real. Assuming that the donation is a typical whole blood donation, one pint of blood is extracted from the body (the average adult human body contains 8-12 pints of blood in total). That means that one pint of liquid is lost (that liquid is plasma, and within that plasma, there are red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets). Red blood cells are critical for transporting oxygen throughout the body, so the short-term impact of losing those red blood cells is immediately noticeable (which is why some people feel faint when they simply stand up after a donation), and is definitely noticeable if the donor tries to do any activity that demands higher levels of oxygen (such as running, cycling, or swimming).

The body is able to replace the plasma that is lost from a whole blood donation within 48 hours. Then, it takes a full four to eight weeks to replace the red blood cells that are lost during the donation; how long it actually takes is dependent on a number of factors, and each person is very different. Therefore, your body is technically “compromised” for quite a bit of time. But here’s the amazing thing, my friends. The body is an AMAZING machine, and it can adapt relatively quickly to operate in “sub-par” conditions. This means that it doesn’t take four to eight weeks for you to feel “normal.” It actually only takes a day or two for most folks!! (Circumstances like altitude, etc. can impact this, but a day or two is a general guideline.)

So how can one make a very meaningful impact on their community while also aiming for endurance goals?? If you have a coach, communicate with your coach about when you are going to be donating blood. Then, your coach can arrange your workouts to set you up for success. If you are self-coached, do NOT work out for the first 24 hours after a blood donation. If you do a workout that day, be sure that it’s well before your donation (so you have time to refuel and rehydrate well). On the day of your donation, be sure to boost your fluid intake to help your body replace that lost plasma efficiently. Also, be sure to eat nutritious foods pre- and post-donation to help the body operate well.

In short, this week’s tip is this: if you are eligible to be a blood donor, please consider doing so. However, don’t think that you are not human when you do this; it’s a very real physical thing to give up some of your own blood, and even if you are very stubborn, you can’t deny your way around that. On the day you donate blood, be kind to your body, give thanks that you have a body that can give such a life-giving gift to other humans, and be wise in your return to activity. :)

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