Bleeding For An Edge: Why a Growing Number of Pro Athletes Are Using Blood Analysis To Maximize Their Performance

STACK explores the benefits of blood analysis for athletes.

Blood Test

Nutrition is not a one-size-fits-all discipline. Yes, a well-balanced diet will always beat surviving on fast food. But the reality is two athletes can eat similar diets, yet feel and perform dramatically different. Why? Because people are different. They're shaped differently. They train differently. They digest things differently. They sleep differently. They have different genetics. All of those factors can make crafting a finely-tuned diet a bit of a guessing game. Specific symptoms might point to certain deficiencies, and you might feel different after eating certain things; but without hard, measurable data, you can never be quite sure if your diet is helping you be your best.

Which is exactly why performance-focused blood analytics is booming.

As technology has advanced and athletes have grown increasingly interested in finding an edge, blood-testing has emerged as an incredibly useful tool. By analyzing biomarkers in an athlete's blood, companies are able to provide real, measurable data about what's going on inside his or her body. This kind of detailed, individualized feedback is invaluable, as it often uncovers performance-draining issues the athlete was previously unaware of. A growing number of athletes—including Patrick Peterson, Jared Goff and Alex Ovechkin—are using blood analysis to personalize their diets for optimal performance.

Patrick Peterson

Blood analysis helped Patrick Peterson discover his body has trouble digesting red meat

Blood testing has been around for over a century. Throughout the 1900s, doctors used blood tests to get a clearer picture of what was going on inside their patients. As time passed, the accuracy and functionality of these tests improved, evolving from simply finding blood types to diagnosing major diseases to providing pinpoint insight into thousands of different biomarkers. In medical settings, blood analytics are used to look for warning signs of serious health issues. Since most people aren't athletes, doctors are more concerned with keeping their patients healthy than with supporting maximum athletic performance. But in recent years, sports scientists realized blood analytics can be a key tool for athletes. Now, more than 40 different companies offer products that help athletes increase their performance via blood analytics. Blueprint for Athletes is one of them.

RELATED: Blood Analysis Helped Patrick Peterson Find Out His Favorite Food Was Secretly Holding Him Back

Created by Quest Diagnostics, a clinical testing company based in Madison, New Jersey, Blueprint for Athletes "provides actionable diagnostic insights to help committed athletes improve their performance." The service offers a variety of packages, focused on everything from food sensitivities to nutritional deficiencies to endurance optimization. They've been an official partner of the New York Giants since 2013. The franchise requires all of its players to undergo regular blood analysis in the off-season; and the tests examine roughly 200 biomarkers covering a gamut of categories, including vitamins and minerals, proteins, glucose levels, hormones and antibodies. The test itself is relatively quick and painless—a needle is stuck in your arm, roughly 1 percent of your blood is drawn (much less than the standard 8 percent drawn for blood donations), and you get your results back within a few days. A physician reviews the results with each player, but Blueprint for Athletes also tries to make the data easy to understand for those without a medical degree. Players can access their results through the company's website or through the Quest Diagnostics iPhone app. In the app, green numbers indicate an ideal level and red numbers indicate that something is out of whack. Blueprint for Athletes has helped many G-men identify performance-draining issues and take the proper steps to address them.

Until his blood was analyzed, Giants guard Justin Pugh had no idea he had gluten sensitivity, and the insight led to a total dietary overhaul. "It's definitely something that has the potential to hinder my performance," Pugh says. "What I was eating before was making me feel lethargic and just out of it. The difference is night and day." Fullback Nikita Whitlock found out his folic acid (an important B vitamin) levels were low, so he began eating more high-folic acid foods, such as spinach.

Justin Pugh of the New York Giants

A blood analysis helped Justin Pugh discover a sensitivity to gluten

Linebacker Spencer Paysinger, who was with the Giants from 2011 to 2014, discovered a hidden sensitivity that had been robbing him of energy his entire athletic career. "I found out I was allergic to nuts and all types of legume vegetables. Any type of pea vegetable . . . I always found myself being extremely tired throughout the day. I wondered why that was happening when other guys were doing the same thing as me and bouncing around," Paysinger says. "I wasn't allergic in the traditional sense that my throat would swell up or anything, but all types of nuts and legumes take way too long to break down in my body and use up energy. . . [and] once I cut those foods out and added other veggies and other protein options, my energy, my strength, my stamina all picked up."

RELATED: How NY Giants Justin Pugh Went Gluten-Free—And Got Stronger Because of It

It's extremely rare for blood analysis to reveal an athlete with perfect levels across the board—there's almost always at least one thing that needs to be addressed. One common issue? Vitamin D. Most people are low—if not outright deficient—in vitamin D. It's not the sort of deficiency that prevents you from getting out of bed in the morning, but vitamin D is extremely important for a variety of reasons. It plays a role in calcium absorption, bone growth, cell growth, immune function and reduction of inflammation.

"Vitamin D is so important for performance. We used to think it only impacted bone health, but more and more studies have shown that it acts like a hormone and actually has a role in muscle function. It's very important for athletes," says Dr. Maren Fragala, Director of Athlete Health and Human Performance for Quest. When Blueprint for Athletes performed their first team-wide analysis for the Giants, they found that over 50 percent of the team was deficient in vitamin D. They were able to take quick action, and within a couple months, almost every member of the team was back in range.

Giants Stretching

Blood analysis helped the Giants overcome a team-wide vitamin D deficiency

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of performance-focused blood analysis is that athletes rarely think anything is wrong with them before they get tested. If you had asked any member of the Giants if he thought he was deficient in vitamin D before the tests, odds are he would've said no. It's how athletes are wired. If they believe they're doing the right things and are playing at a high level, why would they think something is wrong? After all, if you're deficient in a nutrient or allergic to a food, wouldn't the consequences be noticeable without a blood test? Not necessarily. They could just make you feel a little more sluggish, a little more tired, a little less explosive—things that likely won't ruin your career, but will keep you from being your best.

"I always thought if a person is allergic to a certain type of food, they're breaking out in hives, their throats are closing up, but through Blueprint for Athletes, I realized there are many different types of reactions," Paysinger says. When the athletes are confronted with the data and see concrete evidence of ways they can improve, they get excited about the possibility of making progress. Like any competitive person, they all want their numbers to improve.

Beyond changing their diets, blood analysis can also help athletes fine-tune their training. Perhaps the most important way this manifests itself is in identifying overtraining. When athletes overtrain, they feel weaker and more fatigued. Since they have an athlete mindset, they might mistakenly think they are not working hard enough. Then they push themselves even further and wind up catastrophically overtraining. With blood analysis, an athlete can see real, measurable data that shows they need to ease up and focus more on recovery or their performance will falter.

If you're interested in getting your own blood analyzed, several companies around the United States offer performance-focused blood analysis services to the public. It doesn't come cheap—the six different packages offered by Blueprint for Athletes range in price from $275 to $550—but if you can afford it, you'll likely find some new opportunities to step up your game.

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