Before we get stuck in, you might want to re-read the title of this post; I’m not suggesting you should not donate blood, I’m suggesting why you shouldn't.
Covered in this blog
- Some blood donation numbers
- The science suggesting that athletes shouldn't donate blood
- How to balance donating blood and being an athlete
Some blood donation numbers
A study by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found that in 2017, the worldwide need for blood was 304,711,244 units, however, the supply was only 272,270,243. A study from the World Health Organization said three in four people worldwide are physically active and around one in five consider themself an athlete and train for a specific sport. It’s no wonder that many athletes risk their performance by giving blood; if they stopped, there could be a severe issue in filling the gap.
The science that suggests athletes shouldn’t donate blood
A study published in Sports Medicine Open in 2016 found that: “Maximal, but not submaximal, endurance capacity was altered after blood donation. Maximal power output, VO2peak, and hemoglobin mass were decreased up to 4 weeks after a single blood donation in moderately trained people. Beneficial training adaptations seemed somewhat lowered by repeated whole blood donations.”
The most damage is done and repaired within around 24-48 hours, although, as the study noted above has shown, there are longer lasting effects which you should be careful about. If you are training seriously and fighting hard for improvement, it seems counter-productive to give those hard fought gains away.
Ultimately, this might come down to a number of factors; how compassionate you are, how serious are you as an athlete, and what you see as the most important of the two; reaching your goals or potentially saving a life...
How to bring balance to being an athlete and saving a life
Given that maximal power output is negatively affected, it would be smart to avoid donating blood during times when you’ve been working hard on power and when you might need it. Avoiding donating blood anywhere near your races or events should be your number one consideration. If you follow a normal periodised approach, with easier training during off-season, you might be fine to donate during off-season. If you reverse periodise, I wouldn’t recommend donating blood during your season (when you might be doing lower intensity training) as you should be looking to maintain the power you’ve built over winter. Instead, look to donate blood after your main events, this is where you might be when you are taking a break and then restarting training; damage limitation.
If you still want to do your part year around, you could consider becoming a plasma donor as there is an increased need for plasma worldwide and plasma donation does not affect your hemoglobin levels.
One tactic might be to use a similar system to when I realise I’ve dropped some litter. If I suspect I’ve dropped something from my jersey pocket, I pick up three items to compensate. You might not feel great about being unable to donate your blood while you’re training, but can you promise yourself to donate more when you stop taking training so seriously? Of course, you would love to donate blood all the time (the same as I never want to drop litter), but this is a compromise that ultimately does more good than hurt.
If you’re unsure you’ll be able to donate more later than you can now, can you help in some other way? Encouraging others to donate blood on your behalf could be an excellent way to compensate. If you feel a little guilty about getting someone to your dirty work, can you help them out with something? Maybe this is helping out around their house, in their yard, or simply making them dinner.
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