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Cycling with Diabetes – Don’t Despair!

By Sheila Ascroft

cycling with diabetesWhen the doctor told me I had type 2 diabetes, it was a relief! Suddenly, several months of feeling oh-so-tired made sense. Things got even better as the medication kicked in, and I was almost my old self again.

But despite my booming morale, the first bike ride after being diagnosed left me uncertain about my abilities. Even after two decades of cycling, I felt like a novice, suddenly was anxious on the bike. How far could I go? How hard could I ride? Is an energy gel OK to eat?  Would I be able to find something non-sugary on the road, well not ON the road, but at a gas station?  Would I sense if I was about to bonk (running on empty and having the shakes and feeling dizzy), and could I prevent it? Damn, so many uncertainties.

I was so tired the summer of 2009 that I’d all but lost interest in cycling. The passion was gone. On reflection, I realized I had no energy for anything – the idea of just having to change clothes before cycling seemed like such an effort. I’d had that occur before during the height of pollen season, but that only lasted a week at most. It got so I’d rather sit and read on my deck than bike. Not like me at all.

There were other minor things that I noticed and, yes, pretty much ignored, like feeling hungry and eating all the time. Not a good thing when I was already overweight. I kept looking for energy but unbeknownst to me, my body wasn’t getting the energy, it was just making even more fat. And I had a sore on my hand that took forever to heal. I could have – should have – recognized the signs. I didn’t.

Then I had my annual physical. Oh oh, my blood sugar had jumped right into adult diabetes type 2 (above 7). No wonder I was feeling like crap. No wonder a ride seemed to take everything from me and brought in no joy.

Within days of diagnosis and taking the diabetes drug Metformin, a pill that stops the liver from dumping a pile of sugar into your bloodstream, I regained some zest. I did NOT go on a diet. Rather I paid attention to eating healthy foods and followed portion-control eating. No magic bullet here. Just lessen the carbohydrate portion of each meal and add an extra portion of vegetables. Basic and boring, but it had me down 20 pounds in nine weeks.

So I thought I’d try a ride. I cycled a slow but steady pace, kind of afraid of putting in too much effort, waiting for my body to flounder. It seemed fine after the first hour and then, without any warning, I was instantly starving, shaky and barely able to stop. I managed to rip open the packet and suck down the life-sustaining gel. A few minutes later, I felt fine physically. Mentally, I was toast. This was stressful stuff and stress makes diabetes worse. Damn.

Still, I now knew I needed to eat at regular intervals while cycling to keep my blood sugar level, whether I felt hungry or not. This kind of trial and error could be risky so I looked to others for advice.

cycling with diabetes

Lisa Herbert

Lisa Hebert, current co-ordinator of the Ottawa Bike Club’s Women’s Time Trial Series, who was diagnosed three years ago as being borderline diabetic, told me, “Before I knew how to manage it, I felt shaky on the road, and I got off my bike and cried on the side of the road, kind of immobilized,” she said. I understood completely.

Lisa said that she’s been cycling for 11 years and controls her diabetes just by diet. “I manage cycling by bringing along a banana and almonds on a long ride.” if she feels lightheaded, A palm-full of almonds does the trick. “I know my body and I make sure that I anticipate and don’t get into those situations,” she adds.

Another long-time Ottawa Bike Club member, John Barnhardt has had type 2 diabetes since 1998.

“It’s why I stay so active. On shorter rides, I just drink water and eat half a banana. I only allow myself bananas when I’m cycling.” I drink Accelerade on rides longer than two hours and nibble trail mix every hour.”

He says that at the end of a ride, he religiously has a glass of 1% milk or 1% chocolate milk. “It’s his recovery drink (mine too!). It’s easy to find and it works great for me. This is especially important if you ride 100 km day after day like on my seven-day tour of Lake Erie.”

cycling with diabetes

John Barnhardt

John says that he does indulge a little on long rides and eats bakery items like date squares, but always stays away from bagels and white flour products.

“When I’m not riding I avoid carbohydrates and sweet/sugary items – bread of any kind, white potatoes, deserts other than fresh fruit, etc,” he adds.

John advises that weight training and aerobic activities help keep the blood test called HbA1C down better than just aerobic activities like cycling. “Weight training doesn’t need to be much more that simple weights and stretch bands, but a fitness trainer can help plan a good routine. I’m always struggling to keep my weight down. Hope this helps someone else!”

I followed up this advice with a three-day course for new diabetics at my Community Health Centre added to store of information. It helped me confirm what I needed to eat to keep my blood sugar stable when cycling for an hour or two, or for a five-hour century ride.

The dietitian did recommend that every hour I eat a snack such as an apple with cheese, or crackers with peanut butter or even half an energy bar. Protein combined with complex carbs helps keep the blood sugar from rising or dropping too fast.

“I don’t think you need to eat more before a ride,” adds Lisa. Instead, spread out the nourishment after a good breakfast. “I go riding within the hour of having eaten breakfast,” says Lisa.

According to the dietitian, the energy gels are probably OK if I’m in danger of bonking. Each packet of the Hammer Gel has 23 carbs, 2 grams of sugar and 90 calories. (Other gels may be different. Read the label!) It was suggested that I do a test ride with my blood monitoring kit and use it when I felt the bonk. Then take a gel and retest in 15 minutes to see if my blood sugar level returned to normal. A whole gel packet may not be needed.

This week, I did a three-hour ride carrying whole-wheat crackers with cheese, a Kashi bar and two gels (just in case). It was like finding an old friend. The joy of cycling was back.

6 comments to Cycling with Diabetes – Don’t Despair!

  • Kate

    What an encouraging article! I just found this site and feel like I’ve finally found my community. I’m 58yrs old, T2 diabetic, 240 lbs, recovering from hernia surgery and just getting back on my bike again after several years. It feels so good to be reading such supportive articles and comments from others who have been in the same position. I can’t wait to read more. BTW, where’s Sheila now? What’s she up to these days? Would love to read more from her.

  • I am 67 with type 2 diebetus had it for 24 years, not rode a bike for many years, bought a ebike, getting more use to it now, go for short rides to my. Local park, the bike is amazing,when I get tired I just twist the throttle and it takes me home James.

  • Luis D.

    Shela, like you I am a type 2 diabetic that loves cycling. It really is phycling. Unlike you I am a man who just turned 66. I was a avid cyclists when I was 1st diagnosed and managed to get in really good control dropping all medicines.

    Work became more stressful and my bikes grew beards of cobwebs in the shed. Fast forward to a year ago March, I retired. Looking for some structure in my life I remembered my orphan bikes. I got them out cleaned, lubed, replaced brake pads and hit the road.

    After a couple of months I bought a new bike, and increased my rides. So far the longest has been around 2 hours.

    As a result I have had to cut the insulin and metformin I take. Even with that 2 days ago I bonked. It was really scary. I knew I was going low but foolish me I thought I could make it the last 1/2 mile to my cousin’s store. Dead wrong. My brain shifted into nowhere land and I was swerving all over the road.

    By the grace of God I got to the store and checked my BG-it was 42. I ate glucose tabs, peanut butter crackers and my cousin made me a bacon sandwich. After 30 minutes I was in good shape and road for 50 minutes.

  • Linda

    Upon hearing my uncertainty about long rides with diabetes 2, my sis-in-law sent me your articlle. This is GREAT! Specific suggestions and remedies is exactly what I needed. Many thanks for sharing your story.


  • Ann Owens

    I Love your newsletters but none more so than we I read Sheila’s headline re Diabetese Ive been a cyclist for nearly 60 years and I experienced all Sheila’s problems at the end of 2010 – strange feelings on shortish rides and being hungry and eating all the wrong things etc and evetually I admitted some thing was wrong and went to the GP I havent been back on the nbike yet – except in the safe environment of dining room – on turbo – and have had all the anxieties Sheila writs about – I will now however use hers – and the experts acie and tailering it for products availble in GB try to get back on the old stead and get enjoying the bike again Once again many thanks – a very timely article.


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