As a runner it’s natural to think you are healthier than the average person, however, that doesn’t mean you are exempt from regularly checking on your health. Knowing what tests you should be getting — blood work and otherwise — arms you with the necessary information to take control of your health.
WHY YOU NEED A GENERAL PHYSICIAN
Regular checkups are common in our younger years, but as we age and the responsibilities of everyday life pile up, it is easy to put these exams on the back burner. Of course if you have a family history of health issues — such as high blood pressure or specific cancers — you should regularly see your doctor. If you are not experiencing any symptoms, however, it is still ideal to have a relationship with a physician and actively be involved in preventative health.
“Yearly exams are important to look for things that could be lingering so you can do something about them before they have a major impact on your life,” notes Dr. Martha Pyron of Medicine in Motion. “For example, [you should] have your heart checked, your muscles and joints checked — depending on your sport or activity — to look for imbalances and have your blood pressure checked.”
Developing a relationship with a doctor is ideal so you can really trust their recommendations. This way you can feel comfortable with decisions regarding tests and screenings in the future. Family medicine specialist, Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, a professor at West Virginia University School of Medicine and author of “Run for Your Life” (September 2018) admits that there is no sound evidence that going in yearly for a ritual exam is helpful, but there are some conditions that can develop — such as diabetes — where early identification is crucial. In that case, seeing a doctor regularly can help prevent or quickly reverse adverse health issues.
HEALTH TESTS RUNNERS SHOULD GET
There is a standard list of tests everyone receives when visiting the doctor, which usually includes having blood pressure checked, but runners should take additional precautions due to potential cardiovascular strain from running. Dr. Pyron advises runners get a thorough cardiovascular exam that checks blood pressure, cholesterol, iron levels and possibly vitamin D and, depending on your age, may include an electrocardiogram (EKG).
Dr. Cucuzzella agrees with the recommendation and provides a detailed list of tests you should ask your physician about, including:
- Basic tests for cardiovascular risk, glucose metabolism, common nutritional deficiencies, inflammation and endocrine function
- Complete metabolic panel, which includes liver function and enzymes, kidney function, and sugar levels
- Standard lipid panel, with attention to the TG/HDL ratio and TC/HDL ratio
- Hemoglobin A1c (average sugar)
- Vitamin D and B12
- Thyroid panel
- Blood count (CBC)
- Ferritin (iron stores)
- Uric acid
He also suggests “these second-level tests for higher-risk groups for diabetes and/or cardiovascular disease”:
- Fasted glucose and insulin tests (before breakfast, for instance)
- 75–100 gram Glucose Tolerance Test, GTT, (glucose and insulin tests one to two hours after glucose drink)
- Advanced lipid profile (available from LabCorp); this test provides the important LDL particle size and number (you want large size and small number)
- Coronary artery calcium (CAC) score, to quantify your coronary artery disease (~$100 at an imaging center)
He adds that many of these tests can help identify early signs of heart disease. You may not need every test on the list, but coming to your appointment prepared is a great way to start a deeper conversation about health with your doctor.
“Runners often think that by running they are invincible to heart disease; this is not true,” Dr. Cucuzzella warns. “So if you are a runner and sense something is not right ‘under the hood,’ bring it to your doctor’s attention immediately. A coronary artery calcium score (determined by the test listed above), for example, is very helpful to quantify risk.”
WHEN TO CONTACT YOUR DOCTOR
Even if you think you’re healthy, there are a few things to look out for that you should alert your doctor about. Some of these may seem like common after-effects of a workout, however, they could be signs of a greater issue.
“[Look out for] chest pain with exercise, feeling short of breath out of proportion to the level of exertion, feeling faint or dizzy with exercise or feeling heart racing or beating irregularly with extra beats,” Dr. Pyron instructs. “However, even without these symptoms, there could be heart disease that goes undetected, so a yearly physical should be done to do testing necessary to pick up on problems that may not be causing these symptoms yet.”
Additionally, if you are feeling stressed or having trouble sleeping, you could be harming your health. Because of this, Dr. Cucuzzella recommends getting an honest assessment of those issues, because improving them helps you lead a healthier — and happier — life.
You don’t want to rely on your body to tell you when something is wrong — it’s not quite like it does when you are suffering from a running injury — which is why Dr. Pyron recommends a thorough sports medicine physical for prevention.