Running and Diabetes: A Complicated Relationship

February 21, 2019
Megan Dalton
Purdue University
Megan is part of the Dia-Beat-It Chapter at Purdue University. She is expected to graduate in 2022 and studies speech, language, and hearing sciences. She is also involved in Cru at Purdue, the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association, and is a vocalist for the worship team. Her interests include distance running, spontaneous dance parties, and hanging out with her goldendoodle.

I have a love/hate relationship with running. Very rarely am I in the middle of a run and say to myself, “Gee, I’m really enjoying the tiny aches and pains in my legs, the feeling that I’m about to suffocate, and thinking about how sore I’ll feel after my run,” yet I still continue to do it. So why do I love running? Maybe it’s the endorphin rush I get after finishing a hard workout. Maybe it’s how running clears my mind and forces me to lay aside my homework for a short time. Maybe it’s even the simple joy of treating myself with an ice cream cone after a long run.

“I also have a love/hate relationship with diabetes.”

For anyone with diabetes, the hate part is obvious: calloused fingers from testing your blood sugar, the rocket science it requires to bolus correctly, scavenging your room for candy when you have a nighttime low…the list goes on and on. What may be less obvious, however, is the love side of being diabetic. Personally, diabetes has forced me to be an overall more responsible and organized individual, especially in my transition to college. Having to always carry fast-acting carbs, remembering on what day I need to change my site, and keeping track of how much supplies I have left has led me to plan out my days more carefully. This careful planning then trickles into other areas of my life, such as staying on top of schoolwork.

So, what happens when running and diabetes come together? Often times, I get bogged down or discouraged by the extra amount of energy that goes into exercising as a diabetic. Hours before a workout, I begin thinking about the ways in which I should reduce my basal rate or eat a snack so that I don’t go low. If I go low during a run, having to stop and treat often makes me feel as if I made no progress in my workout. If I go high during a run, my legs feel achy and tired, and again, I  cannot perform to my best capability. Even hours after a workout, my blood sugars may act unexpectedly. For instance, after big races or long runs, the adrenaline spike causes my blood sugar to raise. On the contrary, weight resistance workouts cause me to have lower blood sugars throughout the whole next day, even if I didn’t go low during the workout itself. Many factors must be considered to exercise productively as a diabetic, and honestly, thinking about these factors can just be tiring.

“Diabetes has given me the determined, positive mentality that is required for running.”

However, there must be a reason why I still exercise as a diabetic, so enough with the downsides. Let’s take a look at why running, or any exercise for that matter, and diabetes make a great duo. Someone asked me the other day what I think about when I’m running, and I came to the realization that I constantly think about math: what pace I’m going, exactly how many miles left, studying the trends on my continuous glucose monitor (CGM), etc. In a way, I think that math calms my mind, and exercising offers an outlet for my mind to wander and destress. Moreover, I have found that running helps keep my blood sugars more regulated and predictable. I know precisely how my blood sugars react when I keep a consistent workout plan, which gives me more peace-of-mind in carrying out my day. Lastly, as odd as it sounds, I don’t think I could have endured six years of cross country or running half marathons without diabetes. Diabetes has given me the determined, positive mentality that is required for running. As a diabetic, it can be easy to want to stop paying attention to your blood sugar and just push away the worries, until you remember that there really are no “vacation days” with diabetes. On a run, it’s easy to tell myself to quit early because I’m feeling tired or sore, but the mental strength it takes to be a distance runner has been strengthened by  having diabetes.

All in all, exercising as a diabetic can seem like a daunting task. There are upsides and downsides, and it’s up to each individual to find out what exercise and diabetes regimen works best for him or her. People always say that distance runners are crazy for running so many miles and seeming to actually enjoy it. I only wonder what they would say if they knew what went into being an athlete with diabetes…

Interested in reading more about this topic?