Functional Medicine for Runners: The Diagnostic Phase

Ute Art Rock, Arches National Park, Moab, UT (thinking about ancestral health)
Ute Art Rock, Arches National Park, Moab, UT (thinking about ancestral health)

Are you satisfied with your annual medical physical? Does your doctor look at your vitals and latest blood panels and respond  “everything looks fine” without any details? Does she focus on the specific symptom you’ve described without considering your overall health, nutrition, and lifestyle? Do you even know what is the basis for “normal” or “fine” within the US population: is it the fit and healthy adult, the slightly overweight person who walks occasionally, or the sedentary obese person? So you may have normal results within the huge range the average doctor considers is normal, but are those results normal for you?

Wouldn’t it be nice to see a doctor who takes a patient-centered approach, rather than a disease-centered approach to health care, one who understands the individuality of each patient? If you’re not satisfied with the standard of care of conventional medicine and are looking for a new perspective, functional medicine may be for you.

What is functional medicine? As I stated above, functional medicine is focused on the entire patient and her history, not just the one thing currently bothering her. The focus is on the person rather than the body part the person is complaining about or the  abnormal lab result.

Now you might be thinking that functional medicine sounds like quackery. However, more and more mainstream medical institutions are beginning to embrace it. The Cleveland Clinic has an entire center dedicated to the practice. It’s Center for Functional Medicine physicians “spend time with their patients, listening to their histories, mapping their personal timeline, and looking at the interactions among genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that can influence long-term health and complex chronic diseases.” The goal is to diagnose the root cause of illness and tackle it to eliminate or prevent disease, without over-prescribing pharmaceuticals, performing unnecessary hospital admissions or surgeries, or relying on life-long medical interventions to improve health outcomes.

Great Grandp Gillie, US amateur 50 and 100 mile race walker (c.1880).
Great Grandp Gillie, US amateur 50 and 100 mile race walker (c.1880).

After decades of “great” to “excellent” comments from my doctors (yes, my “good” cholesterol number is twice what is considered acceptable and my “bad” cholesterol registers far below levels of any concern, but are these scores even relevant?), I decided to take control of my health by scheduling an appointment with a functional medicine practitioner.

I don’t have any major health issues of which I’m aware, but a few squiggly matters that I decided should be considered in a new light: long-term insomnia; chronic hamstring injuries; and post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy. My husband instituted a mostly-Paleo diet a few years ago and, although I have more of a sweet tooth than he does, I’ve generally followed it, too. I suppose our diet is ultimately a low-carb/low-grain/no legume combination, with the focus on vegetables, nuts, eggs, berries, Greek yoghurt, hard cheeses, chicken and fish, almond butter, coconut or almond milk, and dark chocolate in small doses.

My personal foray into functional medicine began at the California Center for Functional Medicine and includes three steps: (1) an initial consultation to determine what, if any, are my health issues or concerns, (2) an abundance of diagnostic tests with an astounding breadth and depth of information for the doctor to discern, including SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth), comprehensive hormone profile to assess my daily cortisol rhythm and cortisol metabolites to assess my stress response, testing for gluten reactivity and autoimmunity, a comprehensive blood panel, and an evaluation of the balance of gut bacteria, and (3) an in-person debriefing of the test results and, if necessary, steps to take to remedy any noted issues.

The process is not simple or for the faint-hearted with lots of blood drawn, eating specific foods or fasting before certain tests, and following a 30-day Paleo Reset diet before my case review. I have completed all the diagnostic tests and will start the Paleo Reset diet after my scheduled half marathon in early August. I did not want to stress my body with this change before the run. While the reset may not be as drastic for me as for some people, eliminating cheese, yoghurt, oatmeal, and chocolate will take concentration and extreme willpower!

Chocolate: one of the basic food groups?
Chocolate: one of the basic food groups?

I’m concerned about the test results: I’ve never had such a thorough review of my body systems especially from a nutritional perspective. I likely do not eat enough calories or get the panoply of nutrients that are critical to fighting inflammation and maintaining good gut health. Even though I am only a subject of one, understanding this new science and health approach is fascinating. I look forward to sharing the results with you next month. Stay tuned!

Are you interested in functional medicine or have you seen a functional medicine practitioner? What do you think about the subject?


I'm a senior masters runner. I write about my running journey and topics of interest to runners of all ages. My current goal is to maintain of steady base of road and (new to me) trail running, with some 5k, 10k, and half marathons throughout the year.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. I too have been seeing a functional medicine dr for almost a year now. I was tired of the western medicine doctors just prescribing me medicine to only cover up my symptoms and not really try to get to the root of the problem. I have autoimmune urtaricia and angio edema along with new diagnoses via my functional dr- leaky gut and gluten sensitivity along with a few other food sensitivities. I am very happy I made the switch and learning more about how my body functions.

  2. I did not know about this! Oddly enough, I read this while in the waiting room of my new PCP’s office. My appointment went very well. He even asked me how many miles a week I run and I joked with him that he must be a runner because only runners use that lingo. Turns out he does run and seemed very understanding about those of us who identify with running as a daily habit. I like him so far but I will also keep this approach in mind for the future!