Can people with diabetes still run?

Originally published on The Running Bug

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with diabetes, don’t discount running as a great way to manage your health and fitness.

It’s a little known fact that four million people in the UK currently have diabetes; more than all types of cancer and dementia combined. While people with the condition can lead a perfectly normal life, if not managed properly it can lead to serious health complications. But if you’re concerned that diabetes spells the end of high impact sport, think again. With a bit of planning and some careful management running might just transform your life.

There are two main types of diabetes. Type 1 (T1) develops when the insulin-producing cells in the body have been destroyed and the body is unable to produce any insulin. T1 has nothing to do with lifestyle or weight and can develop at any age.

Type 2 (T2) diabetes develops when the body doesn’t produce enough insulin or it doesn’t work properly, so T2 requires different management. 90 per cent of the people diagnosed with diabetes in the UK have T2. Although people are more likely to develop T2 if they are overweight, genetics, diet and medical history also play a part. 

While both types need to be carefully managed, many people with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes enjoy an active lifestyle and find that running helps to reduce the risk of further complications.

Exercise anxiety

After being diagnosed with T1 diabetes 14 years ago Andy Broomhead from Sheffield assumed his marathon dreams were over. ‘It didn’t seem possible to be able to do that kind of thing when I had such a complex condition to manage,’ he explains.

‘I think a lot of people can find it hard to live with diabetes and do exercise because it can be really tricky to combine the two. It can take a lot of work when you’re starting out a new exercise regime, but the benefits are huge.’

Running has since had a positive impact on Andy’s health. ‘It really made me think a lot more about what I was eating and what the effects of all my food were,’ he says.

‘Type 1 diabetes is autoimmune so there’s no amount of running or healthy eating that will ‘cure’ it, but getting into good habits and a proper routine that running gave me really made a big difference to how I managed my diabetes – I’ve never felt better or had such consistent management as I have in the last few years.’

Post diagnosis Gavin Megaw from Surrey was also nervous about exercising. ‘Everyone talks about de-risking the disease, avoiding hypos. As a result, exercising seems scary,’ he says. ‘Finding out I was a diabetic led to a retreat from exercise.’

‘It was a mindset rather than a physical thing,’ Gavin explains. ‘It is all about balancing your blood sugar with your activity. If you are sensible about it, diabetes doesn’t stop you from doing anything. If you say it does, you are simply lying to yourself and potentially using it as an excuse. Diabetes just needs managing. It does take time though to understand how your body reacts, so it shouldn’t be rushed, but ANYTHING is possible.’

Anne Huggett from Somerset, agrees. ‘Trying to learn how to manage diabetes and running was a nightmare at first and I’d run everywhere armed with more sugar than a sweet shop.’

But her fitness has dramatically improved since. ‘To run even a mile was too much for me before but now I find a seven-mile training run enjoyable,’ she says. ‘I’m certain running has had a major and positive impact on my mental health. Being diagnosed with a life-altering condition is far from easy and running certainly helped me cope with the stress and frustration.’

Keeping active

The founder of Team Blood Glucose, Paul Buchanan was diagnosed with T1 at the age of 44 and has since embraced running. ‘Keeping active is critical in managing and living well with diabetes,’ he explains.

‘For most people with diabetes exercise is very scary, as it can cause all sorts of issues with managing your blood glucose levels. But we have cycled thousands of kilometres across Europe and the USA, completed IronMan distances and run marathons,’ says Paul. ‘Diabetes is not an excuse to be inactive, it is a reason to keep active!’

Diagnosed with T1 eight years ago, Roddy Riddle from Inverness took up running after retiring from professional cycling. ‘It’s something that’s controllable if you are willing to put in the work.’ says Roddy. ‘My motto is: Rule Type 1 diabetes, don’t let it rule you.’

Alongside an insulin pump, running helps Roddy maintain his weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. ‘Sport in general is the best form of medication available, as when I’m running or doing races that’s when I control my blood glucose levels the best,’ he explains. ‘Diabetes has never prevented me from doing anything sport related and I would never let it.’

‘The more you run, the less insulin you need and blood sugar levels are far easier to keep low when I run,’ agrees Matt Butler from Surrey, who was diagnosed with T1 in 2003. ‘If I didn’t have diabetes I wouldn’t have entered The London Marathon. Then I wouldn’t have discovered that trail running rules and that it is possible to run and run and run and run further than I ever imagined.’

Athletic success

Diagnosed with T1 diabetes at the age of 13, Melanie Gray has been running for 12 years, proving that diabetes is no barrier to athletic success. ‘My distances are the 100m, 200m sprints and the 60m indoor relays,’ says Melanie. ‘My running PBs are 12.07 secs and 24.6 secs.’

Melanie took up running after she was first diagnosed. ‘I was very lucky because specialist nurses went into my high school and explained all about the condition to my teachers. This meant I was never excluded from school sports activities, including athletics.’

‘They took me along to my first schools competition and I soon realised that running had an amazing impact on my blood glucose levels,’ she explains. ‘I got myself a coach and started training regularly. Eventually I started winning competitions and setting schools championship time records. Which led onto achieving over 25 representative honours for my country along with captaincies during my athletic career so far.’

‘Running for me has been life changing on so many levels,’ says Melanie. ‘It helps me manage my blood glucose levels, my weight, mental wellbeing and to require less medication. People often ask whether I really need to do athletics because it sometimes makes managing my diabetes a little harder. But this only gives me the motivation and determination to work and train harder.’                              

‘There are a vast number of misconceptions about diabetes, ranging from people thinking you can’t succeed in sport with a condition like this, to that we got it in the first place through inactivity, both of which are nonsense,’ says Melanie. ‘I think it’s important to dispel these myths, through actions such as participating in elite sport.’

Dispelling the myths

First diagnosed with T2 in 2001, Steve Murdoch from Fife has never let diabetes prevent him from keeping active. ‘I was not particularly overweight and there is no history of diabetes in my family. I appear to be part of that small percentage who are just unlucky.’

‘Running has had a massive impact on my life,’ says Steve. ‘There is a prevalent notion that T2 diabetics are lazy fat folk that simply need to stop eating burgers. Yet there are many who will get it through other factors including stress, depression, family history or randomly. There is no doubt that diet can have an effect, but that is only part of the story.’

Bob Swindell started Couch to 5K shortly after his T2 diagnosis three years ago. ‘If I had ever been chased by a lion I would have called a cab!’ he says.

‘I started with some gentle jogging, and built up to running over time. It started as a way to help control my weight, but has become a more central part of the way I manage my blood glucose. I have lost over 50kg in weight, reduced my blood pressure, reduced my cholesterol levels and am generally much happier and healthier.’

‘It doesn’t matter if it is 500 yards or miles and miles,’ adds Bob. ‘Getting started is the key, and integrating it into your every day life can be a game changer.’

  • Do you have T1 or T2 diabetes and still enjoy running, or are you thinking of taking up the sport? Share your running stories in the comments section below!
  • While both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are characterised by having high blood sugar levels, the cause and development of the conditions are different. Always seek medical advice before embarking on any new exercise programme.

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