Giving Back: Blood Donation Alternatives for Runners

Give Blood to the American Red Cross

This post originally ran on August 6, 2012. In light of the Boston bombings, we thought it would be a good idea to revisit this topic.

We all know that giving blood is important.  I was raised believing it was my civic duty to give blood whenever I could.  So I donated blood regularly since I was 18 years old and even gave plasma when I was in college (that is a different story though).  However, I stopped doing it during my child-bearing and baby-raising years. Once I was past that time of my life I wanted to start giving again, but there was one thing I hadn’t considered.

During the years I stopped giving blood to raise my baby boys I started long distance running.

The first time I gave blood after that break was during a training season a few years ago.  I gave a “double red” donation and was seriously knocked on my butt for weeks (if not a good 2 months) afterwards.  I simply couldn’t run the same paces and was beaten down.  They say you are fine after a couple of days, but long distance training-wise, I was not.  The next time the American Red Cross called me, I casually mentioned that I had trouble last time and that I was a marathoner.  They immediately told me I should not give blood.

So I haven’t since, but I always feel a little bad about it.  Especially since the Red Cross has recently indicated that they have a real shortage.  So what is a gal to do?

I suggest if you are not distance training, please sign up ASAP.  There are local blood drives on a daily basis and you CAN save a life.  If not LIVES.

If you are a distance runner and have been advised against donating regularly, there is another option.  This week, I registered to become a donor with the National Bone Marrow Donor Program.   By doing so, I may be called upon to donate my bone marrow or peripheral blood cells.  If called upon, it will certainly screw up my training.  But it would be more than worth it to me because it would mean that I am a perfect match for someone with a blood cancer in need.

Sign me up!  It costs $100 to register and send in your cheek cell sample.  However, if you are interested but really can’t afford it, you can use Google to search for a National Bone Marrow Donor Program promotion code and you will readily find a means to do it completely free.  I encourage you to do so – it could save a life.

Whatever works for you, I urge you to ensure you are doing something.  Giving blood regularly doesn’t work for me, but I have found an alternate.  You can too.  If joining the Bone Marrow Donor Program isn’t for you consider volunteering your time with the American Red Cross or you could even raise money for cancer research by partnering up with an organization like Team in Training. We can all help and we all know there is always a big need.  Please do.

Do you donate blood and if so, how does it (or does it not) affect your training?  If you advocate for giving blood while training, we’d love to hear from you.   Of course, we’d love to hear your stories if you’ve been able to match and donate to someone as well.

Mindi is a serial marathoner. She is a private practice attorney, wife and mom of two awesome (and super fast) boys, ages 12 and 14. She coaches Girls on the Run and is a big advocate of youth running.

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  1. I am a very avid blood donor. I also organized blood drives at my work and was the coordinator here for about 6 years until that duty was transferred last year (not my choice). I have donated for so many different organizations that I do not know how much I have donated but I would guess 5-7 gallons.

    I’m also registered with the Bone Marrow Donation program. Please know that the Bone Marrow Registry particularly needs People of Color as donors.

    A few years ago I realized that my blood donations were really hampering my ability to workout not for a few days but for about 2 weeks but I still wanted to donate. The next time I was in the office, I asked about a poster which said “Making the most of your Donations” or something to that effect and listed the blood types with how many lives you can save. I asked them to explain the poster and they said that depending on your blood type, they might prefer to have blood platelets. I’m A+ so they would prefer that I donate blood platelets up to 20 times a year. It turns out that while I have chronically low iron (I always have to prep for a donation), I have relatively high platelet counts. I have donated about 40-45 blood platelet double-units since then including 20 double donations in 2010 which I set as one of my personal goals for the year. A platelet donation takes considerably longer (for me to donate a double takes between 65-100 minutes) than a blood donation and there can be some strange side effects including becoming very cold or feeling a twitch in eyelids, lips, nose. The twitch indicates a need for calcium for which the attendants will give you Tums to chew and they will give you a blanket/electric blanket. The good news is that I generally recover from a platelet donation overnight. I have frequently donated on a Monday afternoon and done a Tuesday morning run.

    Many workplaces will give you time off for a blood donation. And some blood centers have incentive programs for repeat donors.

    And let’s not forget the free cookies (or trail mix or raisins)!

  2. The platelet donation is a really great option, Debra!

    Science is so neat that way.

    I wish I could give blood, but even though everything about the body fascinates me I inevitably have a “reaction” to the big giant needle–I cry like a little baby! I know it’s important to give blood, and I’ve tried a few times. And every time without fail the tears start coming as soon as I see that needle or feel a swab on my arm. I’ve tried looking away, I’ve tried meditating…It’s ridiculous, but I’m so terrified of that thing that even when I had my eyes closed they said my heart rate was too high and sent me home!

      1. Cinnamon, I have often held the hand of someone who is terrified of donating. I always make sure I talk to them during the entire prep time and while the needle goes in. Every single time, without fail, once told they can start squeezing the ball every 5 to 8 seconds, they look at me and say “I didn’t even feel them put the needle in. Thanks!” Having someone you love and trust stand with you and distract you may help. I’ve gotten a number of older gentlemen and high school students to donate this way!! Might be worth a try!

  3. Thanks Charles. I agree that it takes several weeks – if not up to 8 weeks. When I gave blood last time it was a “double red” and it knocked me hard.

  4. This article (plus the call I get from the blood center at least once a week) reminded me that I haven’t donated in about a month and that they desperately need my platelets so I’m going tomorrow.

    Mint – I’ve never given a double red. For the longest time the iron cut off was higher than I ever achieved. Then one day my iron was high enough and I said I would do it. They guy goes how much do you weigh? 165. Great. How tall are you? 5’4.5″ oh… you have to be 5’5″. 🙁 I was like, I’m 5’5″! I’m 5’5″ but I couldn’t unsay 5’4 1/2″

    1. Strange! I am 5′ 5″ and 135 and have never been turned away – even from double red. That was several years ago though (2006 or 2007). Now I see the guidelines are 5′ 5″ and 150 lbs for a woman; 5’1″ and 130 lbs for a man. I wonder how they came up with those cut-off numbers. It may explain why it knocked me so hard though given that I was outside that range by 15 lbs.

  5. I run between 5-9 miles daily and gave last winter, felt terrible for about 2 weeks afterwards. I just gave after the local TurkeyTrot and 3 weeks later I still have to walk on 5 mile runs! I’ve lost almost 5 pounds since last year and barely weigh enough to give at all. I’m waiting patiently (or not so patiently) to get back on track since I have a race in 2 weeks.

  6. Wow. Kat. That’s hard. I would say that depending on your blood type you might try donating platelets. I do it regularly ( going tomorrow) and I never feel tired or run down from it. You lose almost no red blood cells so basically if you drink some water you can get up the next day and run.

    1. You have convinced me to look into platelets. I hope I can do it. I am in simply base-building mode for the spring rather than heavy training, so it can’t hurt.

      1. That’s fantastic that you’ll try it. My biggest recommendation (as someone who has donated over 80 times) is to tell the attendant if anything feels wierd even if it feels strange. It’s easier to stay warm than to get warm again. If you feel any itching or twitching, tell them. They can give you tums and water for that. I’d love to hear about your experience once you do it.

  7. This is such a valuable and timely re-post – thank you! I can’t give blood for health reasons, and always feel so helpless because I can’t, especially because my blood type is a universal donor. I’ll definitely look into this.

  8. I love the repost. I’ve continued my regular platelet donations and a few weeks ago actually was able to give a triple. I’ve now donated two triple units of blood platelets. That’s a pretty huge donation and I’m thrilled with it.

    I will also say that I love people and their spirit and generosity. We’ve all heard stories of the runners who ran on to donate blood in Boston. Here we’re about 120 miles south of West – the site of the massive factory explosion. I’m following the local Blood Center posts and basically people are coming out in droves to donate blood or platelets or whatever they need and waiting to do so.

  9. I’m excited about the platelets idea. I have a heart condition so have been told not to give blood – they literally won’t take it even when I begged. (Salty, do they let you donate?). I hadn’t thought of this and will look into it!!!!

  10. Cathryn,
    That’s good to hear (not the heart condition part – the will see about donating platelets). I hope it goes well and that you post here to let us all know.

  11. Thank you for this article!

    I am type O negative, but distance running has messed up my iron a bit and I’ve been too low to donate blood. I keep trying, but it’s nice to learn about alternatives. Thanks!