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Why Triathletes with Type 2 Diabetes Need to Manage Their Dietary Needs Close to a Race

At first glance, it’s tempting to think of triathlon and type 2 diabetes as a misnomer. The most common cause of the condition is being overweight. However, this is somewhat unfair, as thin people can have type 2 diabetes, too. It’s thought there are genetic dispositions to the disease, as it’s most common in American Indians and Pacific Islanders who are about twice as likely to develop it as Europeans. You’re also more at risk if you have a close family member who’s a sufferer. 

However, exercise is key to managing type 2 diabetes, and two of triathlon’s three disciplines – swimming and cycling – are often recommended to bigger folks as ways of exercising that puts less pressure on the joints, and reduces the risk of injuries like stress fractures. Any sort of endurance event takes a toll on the body though, and when that body already has specific conditions, it’s of paramount importance to make sure it’s up to the rigors ahead. 

Stay hydrated

Noted diabetic education specialist Amanda Lane advises that “Those with diabetes don't necessarily need more water than those without, but hydration is even more important for those with diabetes”.  We know the baseline for water intake during a day should be around two liters, but that can rise based on climactic factors and how active one is. Dehydration can be particularly dangerous for diabetics as it can increase blood sugar. In the short term, hyperglycemia can lead to fatigue and blurred vision - not good news when training for an event. Harvard advises drinking two to three cups (17-24 fluid ounces) of fluid per hour of training to replenish water lost through sweat. 

Enlist the experts

Triathlon might seem like a solitary pursuit when you’re hitting the wall five miles from home, but success comes from having a good team round about you. Everyone’s different, and opening up to your coaches will help them devise a training plan that gets the best out of each individual. Likewise, the best diabetes weight management programs are tailored to suit the needs of the subscriber. For triathletes, that could involve eating slightly more protein than other diabetics to stay fuller for longer and not have hunger disrupt a training session. Having a nutrition coach as well as an athletic coach on hand means you’re free to focus on the race. 

Consider the event

An athlete’s fueling needs will vary according to the discipline of triathlon they’re entering. The fast and furious nature of Super League Triathlon at only three and a quarter miles total distance will require much different consideration than the 130+ miles a full Ironman encompasses. Type 1 diabetic triathlete Emma Kleck prefers the Half Ironman category as she feels it’s easier to manage blood sugar due to the slower burn nature of the event. On the flip side, type 2 diabetic Inditya Mendonca’s first attempt at the 70.3 ended five miles from the running finish because his blood sugar spiked during the cycle, and crashed in the run. 

Seek quality carbs

Type 2 diabetics need to count carbs anyway, but in the period before a race, where training will scale down into shorter runs, swims, and rides, it becomes yet more important. The carb-loading most athletes will do before an event needs to be balanced carefully with having sufficient insulin(and having enough sensitivity to it) so that the muscles can utilize any glucose available to them. While all carbohydrates will cause a rise in blood glucose, choosing sources of complex carbohydrates like whole fruits and non-fat yogurt can help avoid peaks and troughs in blood sugar levels. Oatmeal is rich in soluble fiber, which means it’s digested more slowly, but do keep an eye out for added sugar in pre-packaged oat bars.  

Type 2 diabetics undergoing any training program should go into it with their eyes open. That includes sourcing support, being careful to consider their condition alongside their conditioning, and being vigilant that their diet will support what they’re asking their bodies to do. 

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