By Larry Carroll
For the most part, runners have become accustomed to certain measuring tools for assessing their training and overall health. Some rely on the latest technology (heart-rate trackers, post-run stats), others on old-fashioned observations (pulse, dehydration), but in this sport, everyone is always looking for that next great advantage.
Which is where direct-to-consumer blood testing comes in. The industry claims that our blood contains vital information we cannot attain elsewhere, which can lead to diagnostics that will keep us operating smoothly and effectively, as an electronic device or automobile; critics point out that results are often misinterpreted, that you may be opening yourself up to privacy concerns, or that claims of accessibility and ease could be Theranos-like missions of misinformation.
What’s the truth? Below, we examine some facts and fiction about the blood test movement – and the possible advantages of do-it-yourself blood analyses.
Is the price right?
Testing your own blood while bypassing a physician or healthcare practitioner is a rapidly growing business. Companies like LabCorp, Health Testing Centers and Walk-In Lab offer easy-to-use tests, typically with online result delivery. With prices typically ranging from $99 to $1000, the question then becomes a more complex one: What are you screening for?
The services you need
Blood testing companies typically offer to screen you for everything from allergies and cancers to diabetes and STDs. If you’re a healthy athlete, many would be an unnecessary expense; if you have a history of iron-deficiency anemia, low hormone levels or other afflictions, testing might be more helpful. While some athletes are driven to blood testing because of symptoms – sluggishness, underperformance, etc – others see it as a preventative measure. Clearly, if you have significant deficiencies in zinc, vitamin D or magnesium, it’s better to know and adjust your diet than pushing harder in your workouts and potentially compounding your problems.
What are the benefits?
Over at Simplifaster “7 Reasons to Blood Test Athletes “, Track and Field coach/sport technologist Carl Valle recommends quarterly blood testing, calling it “one of my top three metrics for athletic development.” He then explains how analysis of a person’s bloodstream measures biomarkers represent long patterns over time, revealing “cold and direct” truths about such things as vitamin D levels (which he says are easy to work with) and hormone levels (which must be approached more cautiously).
“Blood testing helps coaches elicit performance when athletes are free of such barriers as nutrient deficiencies and problems away from the track or field,” he says. “A clean bill of health and perfect scores on blood tests do not guarantee an athlete will reach the podium or win a championship, but it does rule out wellness as a limiting factor.”
Also worth considering is Valle’s assertion that since information is power, many athletes will use its acquisition as motivation to further push, nourish and rest their bodies – and the results are often beneficial. However, this also marks the point where certain substances could be labeled as “performance-enhancing” and get an athlete in trouble – so proceed with caution.
Misreading the results
Although many of these companies present their findings in easy, user-friendly readouts, to many physicians and lab technicians the thought of a layman interpreting their own lab results is nothing short of horrifying. Then there are studies like this one “Assessing the utility of yearly pre-season laboratory screening for athletes on a major professional sports team.” on healthy professional athletes, which found that 10.1% of initial screening lab results were abnormal, leading to 40.3% receiving additional testing, but only .35% leading to a change that resulted in a significant positive outcome. In short, only one out of every 300 abnormal blood tests in a healthy athlete leads to anything more than additional testing, additional money and increased worry.
Reading the symptoms
Ultimately, much of this stuff is simple common sense. If you’re not feeling well, dial back your exercise regimen and discuss your symptoms with a healthcare provider who may or may not recommend a blood test. If you are feeling well, then you most likely have little to gain from a blood test – striving for perfection in every metric, or overcompensating for a certain shortcoming by taking vitamins and mineral supplements beyond their daily recommended allowance, is a slippery slope.
Proceed with caution
With the above in mind, it seems clear that anyone seeking to cut doctors out of the diagnostic process should proceed with extreme caution and skepticism. False positives are a very real concern with any blood test, and if you are interpreting them without professional help you could end up impeding your physical regimen via paranoia and unnecessary response measures. The sweet spot for those looking to test their own blood is to look over any possible concerns while accompanied by a trained physician or specialist, and then proceeding accordingly.