Blood doesn’t lie: Mark Melancon leads pro athletes in growing usage of blood analytics

Mark Melancon has become an elite closer for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the years since working with a blood analytics company to fine-tune his diet and fitness plans. 

Gary A. Vasquez/Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Melancon’s time as a Boston Red Sox was brief, but the advice he received from a team nutritionist made a lasting impact on the right-hander’s career and lifestyle.

The Red Sox nutritionist at the time, Tara Mardigan, introduced Melancon to a company called InsideTracker, a blood analytics company based in Cambridge, Mass. which uses blood testing to screen for 30 different biomarkers — including vitamins, hormones and other metabolic markers — and determine optimal zones for each level based on a highly personalized questionnaire which looks at a person’s age, weight, activity level, ethnicity, personal goals and more.

The company then makes nutritional, supplemental and lifestyle recommendations to help the client achieve those optimal biomarker levels. As clients repeat the testing over time, they are able to learn exactly how to fuel their bodies in order to feel their best.

The tool is highly portable, a necessity for athletes who are always on the go. All a user has to do is log in to the website to view results, nutrition plans, supplement recommendations and where they are in terms of achieving their personal goals.

"It’s so detailed but yet easy to read and you can kind of skim it or you can dig into it," Melancon, who was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in Dec. 2012, said. "You can read the science behind each vitamin and mineral, every biomarker that you’re testing for and really learn everything about it and understand why it helps you and why you need it. It’s detailed and useful information, but they put it in laymen’s terms. Then they have the scientific articles to back up what they’re saying."

In addition to Melancon, InsideTracker works with hundreds of professional and elite athletes individually as well as 25 teams across five major sports leagues (NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB and MLS) in the United States. The testing can be expensive –€“ for professional athletes, the price tag runs at about $500 per session –€“ but with millions of dollars on the line in contracts and endorsements, that price tag is worth it.

For athletes, the slightest change in these biomarkers could lead to increased performance, better recovery time and higher-impact workouts, all of which are essential in helping an athlete gain an edge on his or her opponents.

"I think it’s very important to understand what your levels are and why it’s important, but also what helps those different levels, your vitamin levels, and just how your body reacts in different ways according to if you’re low on certain things or high on certain things," Melancon said. "It’s just important for the way you feel. Your body is kind of like a machine and if you don’t have the gasoline in it, it’s not going to run. There are so many different components to your body that in order to work at 100 percent, you have to have everything clicking."

Melancon made multiple changes in his life both thanks to InsideTracker and also via outside circumstances leading up to the 2013 baseball season, and all of them combined in a way that allowed Melancon to enjoy the best season of his career up to that point. As a set-up man for the Pirates in 2013, Melancon earned his first invite to the All-Star Game and posted a career-best 1.39 ERA over 71 innings.

The pitcher took over the closer’s role in Pittsburgh in 2014 and remained solid on the mound with a 1.90 ERA in 71 innings of work while totaling 33 saves and 71 strikeouts that season.

Last season, Melancon set the Pirates’ record for saves in a single season (51) while going 3-2 with a 2.23 ERA and 62 strikeouts over 76.2 innings.

Melancon said it is hard to attribute his success solely to InsideTracker, but he acknowledged that thanks to the program, he is feeling better and also enjoys increased confidence on the mound by knowing he is doing everything possible to reach his peak fitness goals.

Like many users of InsideTracker, it takes more than just nutrition for Melancon to achieve optimal zones in his biomarker levels. The company measures biomarkers such as cortisol, CRP and creatine, which can be indicators of stress levels, inflammation and muscle damage. When those markers are high, Melancon knows it is better for him to rest than to continue to work out.

"I’m not going to say I can’t pitch that day," Melancon said. "But what I’m going to do before the game is I may not work out as hard or I may take an extra day off during the week from running. I can reduce the amount of stuff I do before the game."

Melancon is one of many athletes whom InsideTracker has encouraged to rest more instead of working out relentlessly. According to InsideTracker’s lead nutrition scientist Ashley Reaver, the company is typically the first outlet that is able to show an athlete on paper via blood test results just how the lack of rest takes a toll on his or her body.

"Most people have never seen on paper that they need to take a break," Reaver said. "It’s always been something that, ‘Sure I’ll take a break. Fine, next week I’ll take a day off,’ and then it never really happens. So seeing that on paper, actually having that click for people that scheduling your sleep is just as important as scheduling your workouts, that’s going to have a big impact on your performance."

The blood work proves convincing for coaches as well. One of the hockey teams Reaver works with had biomarkers across the board that showed the entire team was overworked, so the coach changed the team’s practice schedule and training program in order not to exhaust the players. Teams have also changed the types of foods they provide for players before and after games as well as after workouts in response to biomarker results they received from InsideTracker.

Melancon said he eats more salmon, as it covers multiple different nutritional needs in which he had deficiencies. He also ditched multivitamins in favor of more targeted supplements, as his test results showed his zinc levels were too high and the multivitamin he used to take only increased his zinc levels. He added in vitamin D, which he said was a surprising deficiency considering that baseball is an outdoor sport.

Reaver said like Melancon, most people are vitamin D deficient and never realize it unless they have blood work done. But many doctors won’t do the blood work necessary to show these deficiencies until the person gets sick.

"Your doctor is really screening you for disease, so they aren’t going to alert you of a problem until you get really close to developing a disease," Reaver said. "Doctors aren’t so much trained in how to improve performance. We’re trying to get you into your best state whereas your doctor is trying to keep you out of a diseased state.

"For example, say you have a blood glucose of 96. To your doctor, it’s not indicating that you’re a diabetic so they might not do anything about it or may not tell you about it, but at Inside Tracker, if you’re a young healthy person that exercises a lot and your blood glucose is 96, something is off there."

But while the company aims to keep clients healthy, it also has to be careful with some of the recommendations it gives to pro athletes. InsideTracker uses some supplements and types of foods that are not common in the United States and therefore might not be cleared by the leagues’ competition committees as a clean, non-performance enhancing substance. With regular clients, InsideTracker makes recommendations freely, but with professional athletes, the company takes precautionary steps. In order to combat any potential interference with league drug policies, InsideTracker has coaches advise players on which brands of supplements are okay to use, and it tailors nutritional recommendations for athletes to foods that are already league-approved.

Melancon said the Pirates do not mind him using InsideTracker, but there is some hesitancy in baseball to get involved at a team level.

"The club is all for it, it’s just because it’s dealing with your blood, with baseball’s history with steroids and drugs and stuff, it’s hard to deal with blood," Melancon said. "The players union gets involved. What are they going to do with that information? Are they going to use it against the players?

"But if you’re paying for it yourself and you’re doing it on your own, it’s a beneficial tool and the doctors we have with the club can help point you in the right direction."

Melancon is also somewhat of an ambassador for InsideTracker within baseball. He said many of his teammates and workout partners have also signed up after seeing the way the company has helped him.

Involvement is not a one-time deal. Melancon said the way his results change over time helps him continuously fine-tune his nutrition, exercise and lifestyle plan in order to be at his best on the mound, and he does not see a reason to stop using InsideTracker.

"It’s constantly improving the way I feel and my health," Melancon said. "If I don’t have my health, I don’t have my career so it’s kind of a big deal."

Arielle Aronson covers the NHL and general features for FOX Sports. You can follow her on Twitter @aharonson28.