Readers Roundtable: Let’s Talk About InsideTracker

By now you’ve seen all the posts about it on Instagram and your favorite running blogs: InsideTracker, the company that promises to “increase vitality, improve performance and extend the lives of our users” by analyzing “key biochemical and physiological markers”. For a fee, InsideTracker will enable you to have your blood drawn and then analyzed for “biomarkers” like hormone levels, nutrients, etc.

I know it’s a service that some of you use and love, while others may be skeptical. No matter how you feel, we want to know:

Have you tried InsideTracker? Tell us about your experience!

Do you have questions or concerns about it? If so, what are they?

And now, here’s my take!

About midway through my Boston Marathon training cycle I was feeling more lethargic than usual. I also didn’t feel like I was bouncing back from workouts in my usual manner. Yes, I was running more than ever before and eating all the food. But as we know, cumulative fatigue can be a bitch — so maybe it was just that.

But I wanted to make sure, particularly with my health history. So, I got on the hopper with Inside Tracker and they were kind enough to give me a complementary test. Like any paying customer, within a week I’d had blood drawn and access to full and comprehensive results.

Founded in 2009, InsideTracker is a “personal health analytics company”, which means it’s a company that provides blood tests directly to customers, rather than the customer having to go through a doctor. Doctors tend to order medical tests when there is a health concern, but InsideTracker is more about giving you knowledge to optimize your health rather than to diagnose something.

InsideTracker analyzes specific biomarker levels and gives customized nutritional advice for athletes to optimize their performance based on the results of that analysis. InsideTracker offers a tiered system of services where the most pricey analyzes the most biomarkers and the least pricey the fewest. You can also send blood test results ordered by your physician and save a little money that way.

I liked being able to get the information I wanted without having to go to the doctor. I didn’t have to make an appointment or ask for blood work, explaining that my exercise habits are “normal” or deal with insurance and all that jazz.

Researchers have now identified so many biomarkers for various things, that there is no real way to test for every single one. I was fortunate that InsideTracker gave me the “Ultimate” screening, which looked at 30 different biomarkers that they claim are important to physical health and performance. Some of these biomarkers include the things you’d expect if health is of concern: cholesterol, blood sugar, inflammation, bone health, sex hormones, and metabolism.

Depending on your results they make suggestions to optimize your levels based on your lifestyle, which include things like ways to target nutritional or hormonal deficiencies. And it seems to me they can give pretty good insight into how well your body is coping with your training load.

What did my results find?

I love data, so it’s not surprising that I was pretty excited about getting a huge panel of results. The presentation of the results made it very easy to read and digest, particularly in comparison to blood test results from a doctor’s office. I found the results from my testing to be super helpful. While nothing was too terribly off, I had some areas I could improve and I have to say, after a week of heeding IT’s suggestions for me, I started to feel much fresher even with  a 90-mile block in six days! After a few weeks of sluggishness, I was back to hammering out workouts and being moderately productive for the remainder of the day, rather than just thinking about the next nap. Coincidence?

Markers that were low:

Oxygen transfer and blood function biomarkers, which are particularly important for female endurance athletes. My hemoglobin, ferritin, and iron were a little on the low side. IT suggested I add more leafy greens, red meat and peanut butter to the Pesto meal plan.

Vitamin B12, which is important for energy production and muscle repair. IT suggested I add salmon once a week, include a supplement, or eat fortified cereals with milk.

C-Reactive Protein, a measure of inflammation throughout the body. I suspect that with an autoimmune disease my baseline is already a little higher than average, but IT suggested I eat more berries, which is fine by me especially in these hot summer months!

Killing a few birds with one stone.

Markers that were high:

Liver enzymes, aspartate transaminase (AST) and alanine transaminase (ALT) were exceptionally high. Why does the liver matter you ask? Apart from helping with the occasional glass of wine, the liver converts glucose (carbohydrates) to energy. To lower these, IT suggested I include more probiotics (e.g. Kombucha, yogurt, etc.), healthy fats (e.g. avocados, nuts and their oils), dried fruits, and cranberry juice.

Markers that were optimal:

Calcium and Vitamin D were within the optimal range. Take that stress fracture from last spring! (Also, I was glad to see my daily dose of ice cream is paying off!)

Folate, needed for cell repair and production.

White blood cell counts were all good!

Testosterone to cortisol ratio. This was something that I thought was super interesting. Research suggests sleep as a way to improve this ratio. My early bedtimes seem totally reasonable now!

***

By no stretch am I suggesting that something like Inside Tracker should replace medical professionals! I do, however, think they can provide some pretty decent data about your physiology. They are a great way to get a good picture of your overall health during different periods of training. This sort of testing can be a great first pass, however if a number of biomarkers are off, that would certainly warrant a more rigorous workup.

Don’t forget to weigh in with your thoughts, experiences, and questions about InsideTracker! 

[A note from Salty: Pesto received a free InsideTracker report for including her training log, but Salty Running has not been compensated at all by InsideTracker. We felt InsideTracker is an interesting topic of conversation so we wanted to take this opportunity to discuss it!]

I am currently working on my Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience while sipping on wine & coffee in Northern Virginia. Together with my husband and Rhodesian Ridgeback, Gracie we battle to keep the Tupperware cupboard organized for more than two days at time. I recently ran my first marathon (2:51) and am excited for what is to come. I like to ramble about running post injury, finding a work-life balance and running quickly.

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28 comments

  1. I have had 3 InsideTracker tests in the last 1.5 years (to be clear: I paid for them all), and each experience with the company and employees has been outstanding! Like a lot of the those who have commented before me, I was a classic case of a runner struggling with fatigue and horrid stomach issues, especially early on in periods of heavy training and after races. I went to my doctor for a blood test like a lot of you, and she said everything was in the “normal” range. Normal? Nothing was skewed? But is an endurance athlete a “normal” patient? Should my blood analytics match those of your everyday working woman? I didn’t think so.With each and every IT test, the recommendations that were given helped to improve my strength, my training, my energy levels, and my recovery time. With my last test specifically, I reached out to IT to ask for a consultation for them to walk me through my markers so I could understand what to prioritize, why certain foods and supplements were necessary (#science), and what I needed to do to see progression.

    Yes, IT gives you a LOT of information, but they also don’t try to take the place of your doctor. In fact, IT has actually told me to check with my doctor on some of my markers. Luckily, I do have a sport doctor (who is also a marathoner) who could explain why markers were off and whether I needed to be concerned about them. What the company does try to do is help you to make simple changes that you would not be able to know to make by yourself.

    No, IT is not a one-stop-shop for success, and implementing their recommendations will not help overnight. Success, PRs, and overall health are all formulas. You can’t achieve the end result if a piece of the puzzle is missing. I don’t credit InsideTracker for my success, but I don’t think it would have been possible without knowing what to eat to train strong and recovery stronger, when to eat it, and what additional steps are needed to make me as bulletproof as possible on the inside. Yes, the price tag for IT is hefty, but I consider this an important investment in what I hope to be a long career in running.

  2. Although certainly interesting, this is the kind of thing that could easily fall into the “too much information isn’t always a good thing” category. I haven’t done it myself, probably would if someone else paid for it but probably wouldn’t if I had to pay. The suggestions they gave you all seem to be things that would be recommended for anyone who wanted to have a healthier lifestyle and diet.

  3. I looked into InsideTracker, saw the price tag (even with all of the discount codes out there) and decided that its not a luxury I can afford.

  4. I guess my feelings piggy back on a lot of whats already been said.

    Direct access to lab testing- good.
    Lack of specific information (“context” as Liz said)- potentially bad
    A nutritionist could most likely look at diet and come up with same suggestions BUT- blood doesn’t lie where it is easy to alter or forget something on a food log
    This should not replace talking to a doctor
    When levels are extremely high or low- the prompt should be take this and see an MD

    I’m curious if the system looks at the levels individually but also together. Certain things might be high or low and fine as a standalone. But There are also things where if one is low and another is high it could mean something more serious (if that makes sense).

    For me, I have not tried IT but I like the concept. My doctor is pretty good if I ask for bloodwork, but it’s a push to get certain things. If I wanted in depth iron levels and not just the basics, or if I want cortisol I really have to push- which is why I think that the direct access to lab testing can be good. If I am willing to pay for or my medical insurance covers- why should a doctor be able to tell me no you don’t need that. I’m not asking for an MRI or unnecessary procedure, I’m asking that the same drop of blood already being drawn be tested for something else while testing is already being done.

    While I understand that it would be easy to say this could/should only be used for higher level athletes…I think there are also benefits to others having the information. As much as I am a runner, I am also a person, an employee, a spouse, and a new mom. If certain levels are off- that is going to affect more than just my running. I focus on my overall well being and not just what helps my running. Granted- that doesn’t mean everyone needs to spend $$$$ on lots of testing, but I think it at least means it is worth a conversation with your doctor about getting testing semi-regularly to make sure everything is good and if you feel you aren’t getting what you need there- perhaps seeking out a private direct access thing like IT.

  5. I personally find Inside Tracker to be complete quackery. I also don’t know of a single person who actually pays for it — I did a search a few weeks ago and every post/article I found was comped or sponsored. It’s VERY expensive for what you get, when I could definitely go to my GP and request certain tests (I realize this is a perk of having an awesome doctor who actually listens/trusts what I say) and have them covered under a copay by insurance. I also agree with what Mango said about it being stuff a nutritionist could probably identify.

    TLDR; I find IT to be mostly BS, though probably not harmful (except to my wallet), that plays to the sensibilities of data junkies. Funny thing is, I totally am a data junkie! Just a cheap one, I guess :-)

    1. Running complementary tests for bloggers and athletes is part of IT’s media and marketing plan. They are by no means the only company doing this + with the insurgence of social media that we are seeing in the fitness/health industry, it’s just the way it is now. I don’t think that a companies marketing strategy is any reason to place them in the ‘quackery’ category. Lucky for you, it sounds like you are all sorted with your doctor!

    2. Hey Vikki, thanks for checking out the article here. While we do work with many bloggers and athletes in many different capacities, we do have tens of thousands of paying customers and have look at several million data points in the last year alone, all of which helps us to further refine the algorithm and the guidance that it provides. Not everyone is in your situation and able to test (and retest) whatever they want through their doc, so it sounds like you’ve got a good one!

  6. I’m very much in favor of direct consumer access to lab testing services (especially given the current state of “health care” – practice and costs).

    Inside Tracker is one of many (or at least several) services that provide bundled lab testing, result storage (and trend monitoring / comparison), and some level of interpretation & recommendation.
    Their differentiator seems to be in the dietary recommendations; other companies provide different types of “help” in applying the lab results.

    Some may find it a good value for the convenience. And, it may prompt further self-education and exploration.
    It’s likely worth investigating the alternatives – Inside Tracker is the flavor-of-the-month on running/fitness blogs (witness the giveaways to bloggers).

    A necessary limitation faced by these services is the need to serve a broad base of customers with a machine-generated set of recommendations based on temporal biomarkers devoid of the full human context of the person they were measured in … end result, veritable pablum – likely harmless, potentially helpful, conventionally good advice.

    Those who have already done their homework (on physiology and the direct-access lab market) may well find better value and utility in “un-bundling” and pursuing the lines of inquiry most relevant to their own personal (and ever-shifting) contexts.

    1. You did a great job wording how I feel about the “Necessary limitation” with services like this. That is my issue with some of the services, lack of context for the individual. For one person a certain result is probably fine to just adjust what they eat but for someone else that could be a serious issue.

      Also +3 on the being in favor of direct access to testing services.

    2. I’m racking my brain and not sure what other kind of “help” beyond nutrition or supplements a service like this could recommend. I’m dying to know :)

        1. Oh sorry. Prob needed more context. Liz mentioned other services similar to IT that give different feedback/directives and I was trying to think what those could be. You did a perfectly good job explaining what IT does :)

    3. I think you bring up a good point about our ever changing needs as not only athletes, but more importantly humans. Sometimes it might make more sense than others to look into something such as this.

      While the initial recommendations were computer generated I did spend a good amount of time talking to a real person about what it all means and the actual implementation of this. Machine learning is not necessarily a bad thing, you can feed a ton of information into it which all gets accounted for. I’m not here to tell you (or anyone) that IT will change their life, just simply sharing my experience!

  7. I’m very intrigued by this. I’ve had a lot of trouble getting a doctor to take my concerns seriously when it’s “I’m fatigued” but am still exercising far more than their average patients. I personally know full well how most American doctors do not get recreationally competitive athletes. But I guess I share some of the “concerns” (that word sounds a little more serious than my true feelings) that Mango does below. I wonder if this would be helpful for only the most dedicated and high-performing athletes who are already doing everything “right”. For someone like me (a busy parent of 3 small kids), I have so many low-hanging fruits to improve my performance/energy levels, etc that it seems silly to spend 100s of dollars to learn I need to reduce stress and snack on more nutrients in foods that require more work to eat than apples and handfuls of nuts :)

    And I am so happy that Pesto, you felt a lot better, but is it possible for nutritional changes to make that drastic an improvement in energy in one week? I’m genuinely curious and don’t mean to sound like a skeptical jerk! Ha! In my mind, it seems like nutritional changes would take a long period of consistency to make a noticeable improvement, but maybe that’s an excuse I tell myself to not make them. Eek!

    1. Salty – Yes, 100% these changes do take time (upwards of 6-8weeks) to show up in the blood work – which is why testing a couple of times a year can be beneficial to see how things are changing in response to training. Was that 90mile block caused 100% by the results/changes I made, no absolutely not. Did they contribute to being able to recover and continue to knock out pretty high quality training, I would say so. Given that I was in the middle of a training cycle we targeted mainly things are a relatively quick to respond to dietary changes (for example, B12, liver enzymes) versus things that take a little more time (iron).

      Part of the appeal about IT to me is that you can have all these biomarkers tested without question. Like you, I have had a hard time getting doctors to run certain blood panels that I think may/may not be contributing to potential problems, i.e. low energy. Honestly, I think people in your situation have just as much to gain as any. Yes, as you say, you might have a few more ‘low-hanging fruits’ but it could be nice to see that you are addressing them correctly – but I think snacking on apples and nuts is a good start :)

      1. Interesting! I didn’t know there are some deficiencies/suboptimal nutrient levels that can be impacted that quickly. My only experience has been with iron which takes a frustratingly long time to fix!

    2. All of your comments here are right on point! Doctors seek to address the sick population and are not necessarily trained in helping to optimize the elite athlete, nor the every day runner, or even the weekend warrior. Our service aims to help provide guidance for the less-served healthy population, helping a person who’s already doing a good job (or not) when it comes to overall health and performance, and help lead to better decision making. It is not intended as a be-all end-all solution. We seek to help provide context for the WHY behind fatigue or showing you the steps to take to kick things up a notch.

      To your point – many of the tweaks are longer term, though there are things that can be changed and felt in the short term, some of which we’ve seen here!

      Thank you for checking out the article and providing your feedback :)

      1. “Our service aims to help provide guidance for the less-served healthy population, helping a person who’s already doing a good job (or not) when it comes to overall health and performance, and help lead to better decision making. It is not intended as a be-all end-all solution.”

        That’s very fair. If I were training and competing at a high level and crossing all my t’s and dotting all my i’s, I’d definitely consider doing this. And I appreciate that IT is supporting an open discussion of your product. When I’m looking to invest in something I want to know the good and the bad. The praise and the criticism. So I hope Pesto’s post and our discussion here helps runners and other athletes who are considering IT or other services like it to make an informed choice.

    3. It is sort of an interesting related/unrelated question about finding a doctor who can help you interpret standard blood results (nothing fancy) factoring in endurance running. I get the same kind of vibe whenever I raise concerns about fatigue or pains to a lot of primary care folks – the question is immediately about my activity levels and then it is often suggested that I back off. Frustrating. I have read that Inside Tracker will also help you if you already have your ownpretty standard set of bloodwork, not sure if that’s true, but it is an interesting option. Because hours on Google on my own to interpret standard test results in light of endurance training is fun and all, but very time consuming.

      1. Seriously! I spent a couple hours today calling doctors, googling, asking around trying to find a doctor to talk to about my fatigue/overtraining whatever is going on. It was incredibly frustrating. I put myself on a waiting list for a functional medical practice (6-9 months! + the is it quackery or good or … I have no idea, but … uh … help!) and made an appointment with a doctor a friend saw when she was going through something similar in the meantime (still have to wait 3 months!) But it’s been 3 years, so what’s another few months? ANYWAY, at this point I have to look at the basics and go through the medical rigamarole to make sure nothing serious is going on, but if after all that and nothing is found than I might consider IT. Maybe it’s really just a matter of eating more mackerel. Who knows! :)

  8. Hmm. These days it’s so easy to get loads and loads of data from a single blood sample. But first of all, the tricky part is extracting meaning for individualised/ personalised use. I guess the recommendations are somewhat useful, but it doesn’t sound like anything a nutritionist couldn’t tell you from looking at your diet. Maybe if levels of something were high due to over-supplementation?
    And second, any one blood test is essentially a single snapshot; often you need regular testing to see how things are changing over time. (For instance, I have a chronic medical condition that requires twice-yearly blood tests to make sure everything is OK and my medication is working.)
    Both of these issues can be addressed with scale. It sounds like they will need more customers to come on board and test more often to gather enough data for meaningful, individual recommendations.

    But…that’s where the regulators come in. I wonder what the FDA is making of all these direct testing services! I don’t think doing Inside Tracker will kill anyone, and it’s obviously not a replacement for a doctor, but I’d like to see what the utility is :)

    1. What Mango points out, but also when something like ALT/AST is high it can be a marker for a serious issue and so my problem with a test ordered by an individual is that there doesn’t seem to be any prompting for further investigation by a doctor. In fact, it seems to me that by accompanying an “exceptionally” high result with nutritional advice downplays any potential issues and then discourages people from getting follow up with a doctor. Treating an elevated ALT/AST with kombucha and probiotics seems like it is incredibly unwise unless you have already had someone who knows your medical history and has ruled out any number of other more serious issues. Sure, probiotics probably won’t hurt, but if it’s something more serious, it’s not going to be enough.

      I understand the appeal of testing services, but I think they oversell what they provide.

      1. Tests such as my ALT/AST that fell into the “at risk” categories were accompanied by a suggestion to visit a health care professional. Monitoring of ALT/AST are actually part of my regular panels so will be interesting to see how they are looking after a couple of months of more targeted care. I mean, realistically I’m going to have abnormally high levels of these for life, but I’m willing to try anything that could help.

        I’m sorry if I made it seem like they suggested some kombucha and probiotics would fix me right up!

    2. You raise a good point – I should have been clearer. Much of the strength/utility from Inside Tracker comes from retesting and tracking how your physiology is changing in regards to training and diet.

      While yes, a nutritionist can make helpful recommendations they are only able to target reported symptoms. For example, there are a slew of factors that could be contributing towards low energy and it can be tricky to make the best decisions based solely on self report from the patient.

      Too, I have a chronic illness that requires quarterly bloodwork. The thing is, they are looking for different things than what I might consider pertinent to my training. I have had trouble getting doctors to run tests that are outside the scope of my illness … maybe I need to find a more lenient doctor?!

      In regards to the generalizability of IT’s suggestions, they do have millions of datapoints so I am fairly confident that their recommendations are fairly robust. There comes a certain point when more data isn’t really going to change much.

      I hope this answers your questions! I had a much longer reply typed up and then lost the darn thing … must be a Monday!

  9. I use and love InsideTracker and I’m so glad to read that it was helpful for you as well. This will be my second training cycle using the information I get from blood draws and it has definitely helped me train and perform better.

    1. Glad to hear! Can you give more detail? I’d love to know what information you got, how it changed what you do and how specifically it helped.