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Life After Kidney Donation: Fitness & Athletic Performance

Mimi Mahon

If you are an athlete, either recreationally or competitively, you may be wondering how donating a kidney will affect your fitness and athletic performance. Will you be able to exercise after kidney donation? Can kidney donor athletes still perform at peak levels? Here’s what you need to know about kidney donation and athletic performance.

If you have donated a kidney, it’s important to speak with your transplant team or doctor about the best ways to return to physical activity. In general, however, most people can return to normal activities like walking and other light exercise two to six weeks after kidney donation.

By week six (week 12 if you had open surgery rather than the more common laparoscopic) you can gradually start increasing your level of activity with moderate exercise such as brisk walking, jogging, swimming or cycling.

How soon you are able to return to exercise depends on many factors, including your level of fitness and your individual rate of healing. In a 2016 study that surveyed living kidney donors about their return to normal activities after donation, 35% returned to normal activities by two weeks post-donation, 79% by four weeks post-donation, and 94% by five to six weeks post-donation.

Kidney Donation and High-Performance Athletes

If you are someone who participates in high-level athletics, such as marathons or fitness competitions, you may be wondering how long you will have to sit on the sidelines before you can start training and competing again.

High-performance athletes may need six months to a year before they are back to pre-donation performance levels. Many athletes recover remarkably rapidly and go on to amazing athletic achievements.

Dave Ashley won an eight-hour adventure race three months after donating, and one month later ran a 40-mile ultramarathon. Greg Sabin donated at age 56 and five months later completed a triathlon.

Austin Gray donated a kidney to a childhood friend, and 15 weeks later passed the Minneapolis American Ninja Warrior qualifying round, later going on to be a runner-up on American Ninja Warrior seasons 12 and 13.

Hilary Baude donated a kidney in 2021 and the following year competed in her first Ironman, placing third in her age group.

Matt Cavanaugh donated a kidney in 2021 and just over a year after the surgery completed the Racing the Planet 4 Deserts Ultramarathon series, running 1,000 kilometers in some of the most punishing conditions around the world.

Being able to thrive as an athlete after kidney donation is so common that there is an entire community of kidney donor athletes, including Kidney Donor Athletes and the athletes who participate in the CrossFit-based Living Donor Games.

In fact, athletes are usually ideal donor candidates because they are typically very healthy, which not only can result in a longer-lasting kidney for the transplant recipient, but a quicker recovery for the donor themselves.

While many donors jump back into exercising, and even ultra-endurance and high-intensity sports within weeks after donation, some types of exercise are safer than others, and you may need to pay extra attention to how your body is reacting.

All donor athletes, especially those who participate in endurance events, should be conscious of staying adequately hydrated, because severe dehydration can stress the remaining kidney.

In terms of types of activity, some doctors may recommend avoiding contact sports such as football, basketball, hockey, and martial arts to avoid injury to your remaining kidney. Wearing protective gear can lessen the risk, but consult your doctor to determine what’s best for your specific situation.

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