There are days when I really just want a huge holiday from my 30 years of diabetes. It has brought me to tears, made me angry; at times it has been a challenge, to say the least! But it has also taught me many lessons about my body and mind that I find of immense value.
Fuelling my body right
Getting my nutrition wrong during training or racing is a guarantee for a hypo and, if not managed well, a roller coaster ride of blood sugar levels afterward.
Although my hypos are never serious, it impacts on my performance both physically and mentally. It is that moment where you wonder if someone threw a bungee cord around you, pulling you backward whilst you still try to move forward. Mentally, I struggle to focus and can’t concentrate.
Eating the right amount and type of food when exercising is paramount to me. Through a lot of trial and error, I have learned so much about my body’s needs for fuelling depending on the type of activity, duration, and intensity. Looking at nutritional information and ingredients (and by testing it), I have learned what food works well and what doesn’t and how much I need.
At the end of the day, the best preparation and training that has gone into a race is worth nothing if I can’t maintain stable sugar levels because I don’t fuel properly.
Understanding the body’s physiology
Why do I need more insulin after a 3-hour bike ride when I finish with perfect sugar levels?
Why can I do a 60 min swim session at 6:00 in the morning with only a 30% reduction of insulin and no food before or during the session and have super stable levels but when doing the same at 19:30 in the evening it results in a hypo?
Why am I more prone to hypos in the early days of my menstrual cycle but the opposite is the case in the later phase and during ovulation?
It is only over time and with a lot of testing and recording data that I seem to have found explanations to these and many similar questions. The body’s physiology is an amazing interaction of so many systems within it. Is finely tuned by the circadian rhythm (the body clock) and influenced by training intensity, duration, and hormonal interaction, amongst many other factors.
Understanding some of the physiological processes helps hugely in explaining why blood sugar levels might go up or down when you are tearing out your hair and thinking, “what the hell am I doing wrong?”
This understanding is immensely important for both training schedule and diabetes management. For race planning, it has made a huge difference and allows me to schedule races at a less sensitive time of the month for example.
Learning from failure
Having good and bad training days is normal. I am slowly learning to accept that not every session needs to produce a personal best and stop beating myself up about a bad session when I just felt tired or my legs seemed to have gone on holiday without me.
There have been countless occasions on which I “failed” during training because my sugar levels dropped too soon too quickly or I couldn’t get them right for whatever reason. On these occasions, I had to adjust the session or temporarily take the pace or intensity out – it meant that I didn’t deliver on what I had planned!
Rather than freaking out, I have learned to accept that I can’t always be perfect! So, I go out and “chop wood”! I get on with it at a steady pace and get the job done. I reflect why levels dropped and in most cases, I have an obvious explanation and won’t do the same mistake again. 9 out of 10 times, I will manage my levels perfectly in the next training session.
Focussing the mind
Pre-race nerves with the adrenaline rush that comes with them are pretty unhelpful when it comes to managing sugar levels and insulin needs. To put it simply, the best glucose and insulin pre-race strategy, tried and tested numerous times in training, is likely to fail when race nerves get the better of you.
This is due to the hormonal stress reaction in the body which affects glucose and insulin need considerably. Whilst on the one hand race nerves are helpful, too much stress is performance hindering: Starting sugar levels of 220mg/dl or more make me feel sluggish and sleepy.
Over time, I have found ways to ease those race nerves and limit the release of stress hormones that result in blood glucose rising to the sky.
Naturally, my race nerves are primarily centered around my diabetes: What if the water if colder than I thought which makes sugar levels drop quicker? Will I manage levels well enough on the bike to run well afterward? Have I taken on too much insulin or will levels rise too quickly during the swim? Questions to which there is no immediate answer other than “Wait and deal with it if necessary!”. Over time, I have learned to control these thoughts in a number of ways:
- Telling myself that I have dealt with my diabetes numerous times in training with less-than-ideal levels and I managed it well
- Rehearsing in my mind the situations that worry me and could go wrong and how I would deal with them – that is part of my race plan tactics to come up with plan B and C if A doesn’t work!
- Remind myself that it is OK when it doesn’t go to plan
- Focusing the mind on something enjoyable – I listen to music whilst setting myself up in transition if I can
- Finding time and space to myself – this is incredibly powerful when everyone else around you is stressing. I like being on my own just before a race and make a conscious effort to stay away from the hustle and bustle that goes on where possible.
No two days are the same for my blood sugar. So many things impact on it and just when you think you worked out the pattern, it goes completely against the expected. It might be heat, cold, stress, a blocked cannula or the wrong type of food, illness or hormonal changes that demand a change in strategy of how to manage my diabetes.
I like routine but it rarely happens. Being flexible and adapting to different situations comes with dealing with diabetes, and it has taken me a very long time to accept this. Rather than getting annoyed that managing my diabetes is a full-time job, I have learned to take the positives from it and apply these to training and race situations: Being adaptable to new situations and circumstances is incredibly valuable because you never know what is around the corner in a long endurance race.
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