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”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENT - −Ja­son Kelly

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.

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