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How Donating Blood Affects Your Running

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Donating blood saves lives. In the US alone, approximately 32 000 pints of donated blood are used every, single day. In fact, one out of every ten people who are admitted to hospital will require blood. Which means that someone somewhere in the US needs a blood transfusion every three seconds, day and night. Staggering figures indeed.

And while it is clear that giving blood is the right thing to do, many athletes are still hesitant to do so. Why? Well, because while they are eager to make a difference, a number of uncertainties exist about the link between athletic performance and giving blood. For example: Will giving blood negatively impact your athletic capabilities? In other words, will it hamper your ability to train hard and recover well? And, if not, how should blood donation be scheduled and approached in order to ensure the best possible outcome for both the athlete donor and the blood bank?

The good news is that, according to the experts, it is indeed possible to perform well as an athlete and make a difference by donating blood. Here’s how.

Who Can Give Blood?

First up, let’s just clarify that not every athlete is able to give blood at any given time. According to the Brookhaven National Laboratory, only persons who meet the following general criteria can donate blood as often as once every 56 days:

  • Persons who are in good health
  • Individuals who are 16 years or older
  • Persons who weigh at least 110 pounds or 49.9 kg

In order to ensure that you meet these requirements, your medical history will be recorded before your donation, and you will undergo a quick physical examination as well. During this pre-donation consultation, a number of potential risk factors that may render you unable to donate, will be discussed. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Having AIDS or being HIV positive
  • Being pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Having recently received specific immunizations
  • Having recently visited a malaria area
  • Feeling unwell with a blood pressure lower than 90/50
  • Having received a tattoo in a state that does not regulate tattoo facilities sometime during the past 12 months
  • Having received a body piercing with a reusable instrument sometime during the past 12 months

Specific requirements may, however, vary in different parts of the world, so be sure to check with your local blood donation center.

The Running-Related Side Effects of Donating Blood

So if eligible, what kind of running-related side effects can you expect after donating? According to well-know running coach, Jenny Hadfield, athlete donors can expect the following (temporary) general side effects:

  • A raised heart rate
  • A higher breathing rate
  • Decreased energy
  • A heavy feeling in the legs

Which, combined, may translate to slower running paces at higher effort levels.

And what does the research say? Is there a negative link between athletic performance and blood donation? Unfortunately, yes. Although research on the subject is limited, and very few of it is running specific, a number of small-scale studies have looked at this relationship. One such study, done in 1995, found that donating one unit of blood decreased maximal performance for at least one week after donation in cyclists. A more recent (2011) study delivered similar findings. It concluded that “aerobic power in people of average fitness will be decreased, up to 3 weeks, after donating blood”. And perhaps the most relevant and recent, a 2014 study found that it took 14 days for physical performance to recover after a blood donation, even though the blood Hb concentration was still lower than normal.

Blood Donation Does Not Affect All Athletes in the Same Way

It is important to keep in mind, though, that different runners may experience different side effects to different degrees after giving blood. Depending on overall physical wellness, body size, gender and age, some may be able to give blood every two to three months without any issues, whilst others may struggle to donate once a year. A healthy, large-framed male runner may, for example, experience only a few, short-lived side effects after donating blood. A petite, mildly anemic female runner, on the other hand, may experience a whole range of negative side-effects after donating a pint of blood. These may include slower recovery times and prolonged low iron levels.

The key therefore lies in compiling, under the guidance of your physician, a personalized blood donation strategy that will work best for you. And while this may sound selfish, it will ultimately ensure that you’re able to donate regularly instead of just making a once-off contribution.

Finding the Best Donation Strategy for You

The ideal blood donation strategy will obviously be different for every runner, but coach Hadfield recommends taking the following into consideration when compiling yours:

  • Your training off-season is a good time to donate. You’ll be able to keep your runs short and easy while giving your body enough time to recover. Just be sure to wait approximately three to four weeks after your annual goal race before donating. This will give your body and immune system enough time to recover and re-build before donation.
  • Another good option, time-wise, would be to donate early in your training season, before mileage and intensity increases too much.
  • A complete rest day is good for donation.
  • For the female athletes, menstruation may not be the best time to donate.
  • Follow your donation with a number of days of short, easy workouts. As mentioned above, according to a study published in Transfusion in 2014, healthy, male recreational athletes need at least 14 days to fully recover after blood donation before participating in a recreational sports competitions. Doctor William Roberts, MD, agrees. He feels that “…most people…will be reasonably recovered by two weeks and functionally recovered by three to four weeks, if the body has an adequate store and ongoing source of the required ingredients—protein and iron—to replace the lost hemoglobin”. 
  • Train by effort instead of specific paces in the days after your donation. Listen to your body and adapt your workout intensity according to how it’s feeling. This will ultimately help you recover better.
  • Consider different types of donations (for example platelet apheresis or plasma apheresis) as opposed to whole blood donation if you struggle with draining health issues like anemia or micro-nutrient deficiencies. And if your physician feels that none of these are right for you, consider raising awareness for the cause instead.
  • Be sure to eat well and stay hydrated before and after giving blood.
  • Also be sure to allow yourself some life-schedule downtime after donating as well to ensure optimal recovery.

In Closing

So if you meet the general requirements and you want to make a difference, get in contact with your physician and start planning your own, personalized blood donation strategy now. Do your bit in a way that suits your body and your training schedule best. Because even one pint of blood donated only once a year can save up to three lives. And that’s definitely worth making an effort for.


  1. Scott Douglas, How soon to race after giving blood, Online publication
  2. Jenny Hadfield, 7 Strategies for giving blood while running and racing, Online publication
  3. Susan Lacke, Out There: The Blood Donor, Online publication
  4. Brookhaven National Laboratory Staff, 56 Facts About Blood and Blood Donation, Online publication
  5. American Red Cross Staff, Eligibility criteria, Online publication
  6. A.K. Ziegler et al., Time course for the recovery of physical performance, blood hemoglobin, and ferritin content after blood donation, Academic journal
  7. T.B. Judd et al., Time course for recovery of peak aerobic power after blood donation, Academic journal
  8. R.A. Panebianco et al., Effects of blood donation on exercise performance in competitive cyclists, Academic journal

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