Besides finding a conscientious doctor who is used to working with athletes, triathletes should be concerned with finding a health practitioner who understands the intricacies of cholesterol, thyroid hormones and iron. Endurance athletes are especially at risk for poor health if they don’t have enough HDL cholesterol and iron in their bodies, and if their thyroid isn’t functioning properly, according to Victoria Vodon, a chiropractor from Newport Beach, Calif., who has worked with many elite endurance athletes, including those under renowned athletics coach Bobby Kersee. HDL cholesterol is particularly important, as it is “used by the endocrine system to create hormones via the adrenal gland,” Vodon said. But many endurance athletes do not have enough of it. And thyroid problems often go undetected, as many patients with thyroid problems have normal lab tests, according to a study in the British Medical Journal.
Finding the right doctor can be a challenge, however. Former Ironman 70.3 world champion Samantha McGlone dealt with a doctor who misread lab results, and this experience pushed her to do the research required to assemble a team of practitioners she trusts, largely by using input from other athletes. McGlone recommends that triathletes find a doctor who will read results with an eye on how they trend over time—that is, how current lab results compare to lab results taken months or even years in the past, paying special attention to any big swings.
Athletes can also use the American Medical Society of Sports Medicine as a guide.
Failure to properly interpret lab results is a top reason for medical malpractice lawsuits, according to a study published by the University of Wisconsin Medical School, so choosing the right practitioner is key. Before you settle on one, seek a second opinion. And when you do find a prospective practitioner, Moylan and Vodon recommend that you give the practitioner your previous lab results and boldly go where few patients have gone before—ask why you should put your health and fitness in his or her hands. If the practitioner doesn’t take the time to provide a thoughtful answer, how can you be sure he will take the time to carefully consider your lab results?
Lab tests are of immense value, but only when interpreted by the right practitioner. It pays to treat your hunt for that practitioner as the most important shopping venture of your life, because it may well be.
Augello is a retired coach who has worked with Lance Armstrong, guided NCAA national champions in cross-country and track and sent five cyclists to the Olympics.