How often should athletes check their blood markers?
Here at Athlete Blood Test, we analyze many professional and elite athletes’ blood several times a year. Sometimes we even analyze their blood a few times during a season. But why? And should enthusiasts and recreational athletes do the same? As you’ll see below, the benefits of repeat testing extend to every athlete.
Let’s dive into the reasons why an athlete might want to do repeat blood testing.
What’s YOUR normal blood levels?
Repeat testing helps determine what is normal for you. Tom, for example, a professional triathlete, consistently runs low in testosterone. His “normal” is outside of standard lab ranges. It is even slightly outside of the optimal athlete range for someone his age and his training volume and intensity. Someone else with Tom’s testosterone numbers might feel weak or have a hard time recovering, but he doesn’t. And that is really important for Tom, his coaches, his RDs, and Athlete Blood Test to know, so we don’t attempt to fix what isn’t broken.
Athletes and their blood are constantly changing.
Take the analogy of a river. Our blood flows through our bodies like a river through a forest. Rivers constantly change, including because of the environment and seasonal variations. Scientists study river ecology to understand the environmental impact on the river.
We look at blood similarly. Athletes and their blood constantly change from day to day, workout to workout. As we follow athletes through seasons and years, we look for variations associated with environmental factors. Some examples include training volume, training intensity, nutritional changes, life stressors, overall physical and mental health, natural aging, digestive issues, supplement intake, sleep, sun exposure, and even personal relationships.
Sometimes athletes don’t even realize the impact factors have on performance until we see a change in their bloodwork and compare it to what is happening around them. Armed with this knowledge, athletes can keep what is working for them and change what isn’t.
Athletes should know how nutrition, training, and supplement strategy (and any modifications) impact their body.
Testing during a light training period and during “peak” training helps athletes see how their bodies respond. For example, one athlete may withstand the high intensity and volume training with little to no impact on blood biomarkers compared to their light training phase. Another athlete using a similar training plan might find out they need more folate and iron during big training blocks. Yet another may show hormonal variations that clue us into excess muscle breakdown, indicating that they may need to back off on volume or intensity.
Relatedly, if athletes make changes following one blood test, re-testing helps them see if their modifications are working (or not). Take Jenny as an example. Jenny is a collegiate swimmer. She kept having low folate levels despite increasing her intake by 2-3 servings of folate-rich food per day. Finally, Jenny decided to get a genetic test and realized she has a genetic tendency for lower folate levels. Now, Jenny consumes an appropriate intake of folate and folic acid supplement to help her achieve an ideal blood status. Since testing, Jenny has PRed and gone on to excel in swimming.
Tweaks vs. twerks.
Tweaks are good. Twerks are bad, at least when it comes to nutrition, training, and recovery. Athletes often have a hard time making significant changes to nutrition, training schedule, and recovery habits. Repeat testing helps athletes get to the point where they can make minor adjustments instead of major shifts, like adding in a few servings of leafy greens to increase folate or switching out a day of hard running for a cross-training day.
Athletes need to know how nutrition, training, and supplement modifications may impact their bodies.
Over time, repeat blood analysis helps athletes better predict how they will respond to nutrition, training, and recovery changes. That means what you think it does: with repeat testing, some athletes understand their bodies so well that they don’t need blood analysis to tell them what is going on.
For example, Joe is a long-term client who is a triathlete. He knows that his iron needs kick up significantly when he hits over 12 hours a week in training. So for the 4-5 weeks during peak training, he eats more red meat, supplements every other day, and kicks it up a notch if he’s at altitude; for most training cycles, that keeps him recovering and performing well. If it doesn’t, he gives us a call.
Some athletes just want the psychological boost that comes from knowing that they’ve got things dialed in. And that in and of itself can lead to performance gains.
Take Beth. She’s a professional triathlete who rarely has, if ever, had a blood analysis where she is outside of either the Athlete Blood Test optimal range or her normal biomarker ranges. Yet, she comes back year over year for a check during her peak training periods to make sure she’s ready to go.
Is she a genetic unicorn? Sort of. But she’s also worked very hard at knowing what she needs to perform. And she doesn’t feel ready to complete unless she knows she’s good.
So, how often should athletes have repeat blood testing?
Ah, we wish there was an easy answer. But, like everything in sport, it depends.
Next, take a blood test towards the end of a big training block (2 to 3 months of hard training). Now you can see how training volume and intensity impacts blood biomarker levels. Then, you can adjust and add recovery days during your next training block or shorten that block by a few weeks.
If possible, repeat this cycle several times throughout the year or a few training cycles. After a few training cycles, many athletes figure out how to stay dialed in and limit variations (tweaks, not twerks).
Another time to test is before a major competition—but you want to give yourself enough time to adjust. Aim for at least 4-6 weeks out.
Finally, it is always good to do repeat blood testing when making or going through changes. Changes to nutrition or supplements (whether adding or subtracting), life changes (for example, returning to sport after pregnancy or injury), or increases in training volume or intensity.
Athletes should monitor their blood regularly. The frequency can vary and is dependent on many variables. At minimum, we suggest a a baseline panel at the beginning of the season, another test towards the end of a big training block and four to six weeks before an important competition.
Read how one of America’s top distance runners uses blood testing to help her performance.