Sunday, March 7, 2010

Blood and Sweat: The Mike Bailey blood donation distance project

By Mike Bailey
36 Virginia blood drives were cancelled in January due to record winter snow storms. Virginia Blood Services is in great need of blood, and distance runners are ideal candidates given their healthy blood supply. One pint of blood can save three lives.

The question is simple. How does donating 1 pint of blood (not plasma) effect long distance runners? Numerous reports and Q&A’s are available for shorter distance athletes, but there is a lack of information available for marathon and longer runners. I decided to see for myself, and made myself the guinea pig for my little experiment.

Prior to donating blood I knew a couple key facts.

1. No strenuous activity for 24 hours after giving blood
2. It takes 56 days to fully replenish your red blood cell count
3. It takes 72 hours to rehydrate
4. Donating blood has had crippling, and dangerous effects on runners (including being hospitalized)

With that knowledge, I gave the standard 1 pint of blood. This would equal having 10% less red blood cells available to carry oxygen to my body. In order to compare and contrast the effects, I recorded training stats and personal vitals for two full weeks after donating. I chose a two week period of time because this was the average length of time shorter distance runners (ie 5k-10k) said it took to feel somewhat normal again. I did everything I was advised to do, which included extra fluid intake, not missing meals(not really an issue for me), extra sleep, taking iron supplements, and eating iron rich foods.

Key stats prior to donating:

Age: 28
Body Weight: 155 lbs
Miles per week running: 60-70 (mpw post donating stayed the same, or increased)
Weekly long run: 15-22 miles. Best long run was 16 miles at 7:30 pace (Treadmill)
Weekly tempo run: 5-7 miles at 6:55- 7:00 pace, or 8-10 miles at 7:05-7:10 pace (Treadmill)

My primary objective was to attempt to keep my post donating training as similar as possible to my pre donation training. I completely understood that my endurance and speed would decrease, but I really wanted to learn a few important things. How much would my initial performance drop? How long would it take to regain my fitness? Simple science suggests that 56 days would be needed for full recovery.

Here’s my breakdown of the two weeks after donating.

Day 1. My body felt fatigued from the start. It was like running at 10,000 ft. I plodded along at an 8:30 minute mile, and struggled to maintain anything faster than 8:00 per mile. I could not maintain anything faster than a 7:30 for more than a few minutes. My cardio was gone, and my legs felt a bit shaky. I required walking breaks about every mile. My total run was 9 miles at roughly a 9 minute mile average, which factored in the walking breaks.

Day 2. Ran 7.5 miles at an overall 8:00 minute pace. 3 miles were at 7:20 pace. Drastic improvement, but still a long way from normal.

Day 3. Third day was a hard mixed workout. Ran 5 miles, including two miles at a surprising 6:46 pace.

Day 4. Felt tired and worn out

Day 5. Ran 13 miles total. 10 miles were at 7:27 pace

Day 6. Long run of 20 miles. Felt good and relaxed, but I kept the pace pretty easy

Day 8. Horrible tempo run. 5 miles at 7:21 pace

Day 9. Better tempo run. 6.4 miles at 7:09 pace

Day 10. Long run, easy paced 21 miles. Felt comfortable, but again I was not going hard.

Day 13. The Big Two week test: Seneca Creek Greenway Trail 50k. Short race report at the bottom.

The initial effects of donating were drastic. I felt like a shell of my normal self, but within the first week I felt continued improvement. With each new day I could run a little farther, and a little faster. I also noticed that I was feeling soreness in my legs after workouts that would not normally leave me feeling sore. Some of the little aches lingered for a few days, but would subside after about 48 hours.
Two weeks after donating I could say that I was at about 90% of my pre donating capacity. I believe the reason why shorter distance runners feel 100% recovered after only two weeks is because they compete at shorter distances. In other words, it doesn’t take as long for the body to renew itself for a 6 mile race as it does for a 30-50 mile race. I think ultra runners tap into muscular and cardiovascular reserves that require the most amount of time to repair and prep for the next big effort. This would leave us at a longer lasting disadvantage when giving blood. I would expect no less than 6-7 weeks for ultramarathoner to fully recover from donating. If you plan to race prior to this window of time, I highly suggest you use it only as a training run. I would not donate within 2 months of a focus race.

2010 Seneca Creek Greenway Trail 50k
Short and sweet version

I knew my body wasn’t 100% recovered going into this event. After all, I was only two weeks out from donating blood. My plan was to run as hard as my body would allow for as long as it would allow. With half of the course covered in snow, and the rest of it covered in mud, it was a little tough to tell how my time would reflect my fitness. Honestly, I don’t think the trail conditions slowed the times down much. At most it caused the 50k to run 10-15 minutes slower than last year. In 2009 I ran the 50k in 5:18 on a day I thought I bonked a bit.
This year for 20 miles I was running with a group of 50k runners who all finished around 5 hours. 5 hours is a pretty solid time on this course, moreso given the trail conditions, and typically anything under 4:30 is considered an elite time. Needless to say it only took a few minutes for my body to go from feeling awesome to complete shut down mode. By mile 22 my legs felt like they had run 50 miles already, and I still had 10 miles to go. My heart rate was elevated, the lungs felt winded, and once again I felt like I was running at 10,000 feet. I think this crash was a combination of two factors. The first being the lack of any run over 22 miles since Dec 4th, and the second being the effects of donating blood. Last year the Seneca Creek Greenway Trail 50k was my 6th ultra of the year, and in 2010 it was my first ultra of the year. Either way I felt like I was hit by a Mack truck.
At the mile 25 aid station I was almost ready to drop from the event. I had walked two chilly miles into the aid station, lost my glove, and had 7 miles to go. I forced myself to leave the aid station, but about a quarter mile later a runner asked me if I lost my glove. He said he found it and left it at the aid station I just left. Ugh! I walked 3 minutes back to the aid station to get my lost glove, and at that point I was 90% certain my day was over. After some mental wrestling, I slowly walked away from the aid station, having tacked a half mile to the already long 32.5 mile course.
The slow drag to the finish was alleviated by tagging along with other runners and allowing fun conversation to disrupt my negative mindset. It was at that time I realized my run wasn’t going as bad as expected. The lady I was running with (and she was running strong) turned out to be running the marathon, not the 50k. It also turned out that she started an hour earlier than me. That meant I was actually four miles ahead, and an hour faster. Not nearly the disastrous 6:30 to 7:00 hour finish time I played through my head. I thank my new friend Rebecca for keeping my mind occupied, and my legs running for the last 4 miles. It was a pleasure finishing the run with you.

Moral of the story. Donating blood is a wonderful cause, but it will wreak havoc on athletic capacity in ultra runners for a few months (not just weeks). But, also know that your running is probably a selfish act in itself, and donating blood saves lives every day. Find a 3 month period of time you don’t have any key races planned, and then donate. It takes 30 minutes for the entire process, and just 5 minutes for the donation itself.

Best Wishes,
Your guinea pig ultra donor,
Mike Bailey


ultrarunnergirl said...

Thanks for sharing your observations. Are you sure you can chalk up your Greenway experience just to giving blood? You did run 21 miles 2 days prior! I know you are young and strong, and I don't know how much you usually run close to a race, but that's not much of a taper!

Mike Bailey said...


I did not taper for Seneca, and maintained a normal training week with a 50k tacked onto the end. That clearly could have been the cause some for some, but not all muscle fatigue. I think the cardio fatigue is very related to the donation. I'll be doing a full two week taper cycle for Terrapin Mountain. That will be 42 days after the donation, so I can say for sure the donation will not be a factor. At that point it will all come down to the, mental game, and dedication.


Dan Rose said...

Great job, Mike. Both with the donating cause and the toughing it out in the race so soon after. I remember the time I donated in high school the morning before a Cross Country race. ...actually, I don't remember anything about it since I passed out. Could have used your insight before that day, that's for sure! Good luck next weekend at Elizabeth's!

runsforbeer said...

Great info about blood donation. We always have a drive right before MMTR and my gut instinct is that is would have a significant impact on my performance, especially because I tend to be anemic at times. Sorry we couldn't hang after EFA. I'll be at HAT, maybe Terrapin then doing the Philly 100 before BRR. See you soon?!?!?