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With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the American Red Cross reported a shortage of donated blood. While that initial shortage eventually eased, the organization reported an even more critical need for blood last month—the worst shortage in a decade. With staffing vacancies, the onset of the annual flu in addition to COVID-19, and winter weather limitations, some hospitals have reported having only a one-day supply of blood for patients who need it.
In a time when donors are needed so urgently, should runners roll up their sleeves? Read on for what athletes should keep in mind when it comes to donating blood.
How Donating Blood Works
When you arrive at a blood drive, your blood pressure and temperature will be taken, and you’ll be asked a series of questions about your medical history, travel, medications, and sexual history. These are confidential and designed to ensure that you haven’t been exposed to things like HIV, hepatitis or other blood borne illnesses. A phlebotomist will test your hemoglobin level with a small blood sample from your fingertip. (Hemoglobin is a protein responsible for transporting iron and oxygen through your body, so if that test result is too low, you won’t be allowed to donate that day.)
To maintain healthy hemoglobin levels, be sure your diet has plenty of iron and vitamin C (which helps your body absorb certain types of iron) or ask your doctor about adding a multivitamin or supplement. Iron levels can also fluctuate throughout the menstrual cycle, so that could influence your ability to donate as well.
If your iron levels are good, you’re ready to donate. Donors sit on a medical table with their feet and head propped up and their donating arm on an arm rest. Your phlebotomist will disinfect the inside of your elbow where your largest vein is, tape a small tube to your arm to keep it stable, and place the needle connected to that tube in your vein. Now all you do is sit back and wait!
A standard unit of blood is one pint (two cups). It usually takes 5–10 minutes to collect your donation, as well as several small samples of blood that get typed and tested to ensure it’s safe and healthy. After that, you’ll get bandaged and given some snacks to ensure your blood sugar stays up, and your donation is done.
Considerations for Runners
The most common immediate effects of donating blood are feeling lightheaded, clammy or faint, which usually pass within a few minutes. However, athletes especially need to take care in the few days after a blood donation not to go too hard too soon.
Both before and after donating, it’s important to eat iron-rich food like red meat, leafy vegetables and beans, and drink plenty of water, says Lisa Knapp, blood bank coordinator at Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital in Bozeman, Montana. It takes your body only about 48 hours to replenish the volume of blood you lost (the plasma) but the red blood cells themselves take up to several weeks to build back up.
As your body recovers, you’ll likely feel more fatigued than usual when you run, so take it extra easy and shorten the distance if you need to. (A day or two fully off won’t hurt either.) Red blood cells carry oxygen through your body, so it makes sense that with a slightly lowered oxygen supply, you’ll have less energy when working out.
Once you start to feel better, you can resume training like normal. The best plan is to avoid donating blood in the 4–6 weeks before a major race, to make sure you have an abundant supply of blood to perform at your best.
“Keep in mind that you’re not going to be at your best performance for about three weeks,” says Knapp. “You can still go for a run, but it probably won’t be your best time. If you’re a really serious athlete and you’re competitive, you might just want to plan for that. Your body goes into high speed to replenish that blood after you lose it.”
An individual can only donate a maximum of six times a year to make sure that they have enough time to build back up before making another donation. We have around 10 pints of blood in our bodies, and while it might sound like a lot to donate a tenth of your total blood supply, it’s pretty easy for a healthy adult to replenish. But for someone on the receiving end, it can be lifesaving.
Uses for Donated Blood
Once your blood is tested and transported to a hospital, it can be used to help numerous patients.
“We support cancer patients through our cancer center. We distribute a lot of red blood cells to them,” says Knapp. “We have in-patient transfusions for various reasons, like surgery or traumas, and sometimes we go through a lot of blood for a trauma. We had one this summer where we went through 50 units of blood. That’s 50 people that donated.”
Donated blood is separated into three elements: plasma, red blood cells, and blood platelets, which are important for clotting when a blood vessel or vein is damaged. According to Knapp, each of those elements could go to a different patient, meaning a single donation could help save as many as three lives. And that’s only for adult patients.
“Premature babies also usually need quite a few blood transfusions,” says Knapp. “We transfuse babies every single day. If you happen to be O-negative [the universal blood type] and your red blood cells are being used for premature babies, there could be 10 babies that got a transfusion off of that one unit of red cells.”
While it can sound scary to get blood taken out of your body, the difference it makes more than outweighs the discomfort you experience as a donor. Donating probably won’t impact your performance beyond those first few days post-donation, as long as you continue to eat and hydrate properly and allow yourself time to recover. If you donate through the Red Cross, you may even get an email a few weeks after you donate, letting you know which hospital your donation ended up in. For anyone who feels hesitant, Knapp has some very direct advice.
“I would say, just donate blood. It helps tremendously,” she says. “You see a cancer patient come in for their transfusion and they’re very weak and tired. They get two units of blood, and it’s like they could run out of there. It makes them feel like a million bucks. You can help so many people with one donation.”