Quest’s Blueprint lets athletes gaze deeper, deeper, deeper into themselves
Looking for a lucrative market, Quest has created a blood test for well-to-do endurance athletes “You have to wonder how much good they do that a regular screening with an internist wouldn’t”
The modern amateur athlete loves data. Marathoners and triathletes devour information about their workouts, gleaning stats from sophisticated gadgets strapped to their wrists, chests, and bikes.
Richard Schwabacher wants to give them more, by going deeper inside the body. He runs Quest Diagnostics’ Sports and Human Performance unit, the medical testing giant’s effort to take a product directly to consumers. Not just any consumers, but endurance athletes willing to spend a lot of money to enhance their performance.
Take the Ironman, the popular triathlon, which asks participants to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and then run a marathon (26.2 miles). A 2015 survey for Ironman operator World Triathlon found the average annual household income of its participants was $247,000; the median for the U.S. in 2013 was $51,939. More than half a million people in the U.S. run marathons each year.
Training for and participating in an Ironman isn’t for the frugal, Schwabacher says, noting that it can run up to $15,000 a year if you buy a bike and wet suit and figure in the cost of pool time, travel and lodging, assorted gear, and massages. “If you’re going to spend that much money on your sport, isn’t it worth spending a couple hundred dollars to make sure the food you’re eating is right?” he asks.
Quest is in the early stages of bringing a diagnostic tool called Blueprint for Athletes to those free-spenders. It’s recruited what it calls ambassadors—a couple dozen hard-core weekend warriors who regularly win or place in triathlons and ultramarathons—to test the product. It’s also rolled Blueprint out to consumers in endurance athlete havens including Houston, Denver, and Quest’s home base in northern New Jersey.
Blueprint was born in part from an effort with the New York Giants football team, for which Quest became a sponsor in 2013. Late that year, Quest’s chief executive officer, Steve
“Not only did I feel like I’d done the work, I was prepared in the right way.” —— Blueprint Ambassador Christina Ross
Rusckowski, met with Giants coowner John Mara and the team’s senior vice president for medical services, Ronnie Barnes, about collaborating. The organizations ultimately created a program to help players get faster and stronger by measuring nutrition, hydration, and food allergies using detailed blood tests. Quest and the team doctors would analyze dozens of biomarkers—for everything from albumin to lymphocytes— and offer specific advice. The results, Schwabacher says, were powerful as the athletes saw how they could change behavior and quickly improve their performance on the field by altering their workouts or diets. “The players became way more engaged,” he says.
Soon after the meeting, Quest started honing Blueprint for serious amateur athletes as a way to help its overall business grow. The company has 2,200 labs; it’s the biggest clinical testing company in the U.S. With sales of medical tests flat and competition from companies such as Laboratory
Corp. of America, better known as LabCorp., increasing, Quest is looking to several products to boost growth.
The consumer version of Blueprint comes in several varieties and costs $225 to $500 per test. On Blueprint’s website, athletes can choose test packages designed to boost endurance, recovery, or nutrition. A clinician at a Quest location draws several vials of blood that are then analyzed. After a baseline test at the start of training, an athlete can come for follow-ups. Some get tested monthly; others check in quarterly.
Test results are reviewed by a physician, who will flag anything he or she deems critical. The athlete ultimately
gets a report that can be dozens of pages long, with details on everything from vitamin D to platelet count. The report defines each biomarker and gives advice on how to combat a deficiency. For example, a high bilirubin level typically means an athlete needs to consume more iron to boost her red blood cell count.
As a weekend cyclist, Schwabacher sees endurance athletes’ obsession with gadgets and data firsthand. “When I’m on my bike, I’m looking at other people’s bikes and their equipment, and we’re talking about it,” he says. The vast majority of purchases are based on referrals. So Schwabacher’s team at Quest sought out guinea pigs-cumevangelists who’d add Blueprint to their workouts and, ideally, tell their friends about it. Over the next year, the company plans to use ambassadors’ and consumers’ feedback to determine which diagnostics are the most useful for specific types of athletes.
Ashley Merryman, who studied high-performance athletes for her
book Top Dog: The Science of Winning
and Losing, says for testing to be effective, athletes need to spend a lot more time and money on it. “I’m talking a daily basis,” she says. Truly understanding the individual athlete is critical in helping someone stay healthy and competitive, says Dr. Norbert Sander, who practiced sports medicine for more than 20 years and is the founder and CEO of New York’s Armory Foundation, which hosts dozens of indoor track meets yearly. Lab tests, he says, “have a great deal of variability. You have to wonder how much good they do that a regular screening with an internist wouldn’t.”
Quest, Schwabacher says, aims to create something “that’s useful as one of the many tools an athlete can use in their training.” The company’s challenge is to effectively distill the results into actionable advice. Christina Ross, a Blueprint ambassador and a doctor in Minnesota, is a longtime triathlete who’s recently taken up longdistance, single-speed mountain bike racing. “What I like is that it’s sciencebased,” she says. Ross says the testing showed her where to tweak her nutrition, adding supplements where necessary. She got tested regularly during training, including right before a race. “It didn’t show evidence of overtraining. Not only did I feel like I’d done the work, I was prepared in the right way.”
Kristen Heath is working on a plan to counter her hypothyroidism and low iron levels. “That’s really difficult for an athlete, when they’re not in line,” says Heath, who lives outside Syracuse and trains for long-distance races in her spare time. She describes herself as intensely competitive and always looking for an edge. Without data, she says, “you kind of go by feel.”
Ross and Heath will both compete on bikes in this year’s Leadville 100, for which Blueprint for Athletes is the lead sponsor. The race, in the Colorado mountains, is among the most famous ultramarathons. (The “100” in the title is the number of miles competitors cover, at elevations from 9,200 feet to 12,600 feet.)
Quest in April will launch a 30-day challenge, in partnership with Under
Armour’s MapMyFitness, through which contestants can win an entry to the fully booked Leadville bike or run. It’s an easy way for Quest to identify future Blueprint customers. People nutty enough to run or ride 100 miles in the mountains are looking for all the help they can get—and willing to pay for it.
The bottom line Quest, whose clinical testing business is flat, has created a performance test for amateur athletes that could spur growth.