Cycling with diabetes and without sugar


I was diagnosed with Type II diabetes just over a year ago and now seems as good a time as any to look back at how this has affected my cycling and whether sports drinks really did help my performance.

It came as a complete shock when I was diagnosed with diabetes.  But looking back now and thinking about the vast amount of sugar I consumed on and off the bike, coupled with feeling exhausted most of the time as well as just plain unwell, it probably shouldn’t have been.  All of the classic signs were there, including putting on weight that I couldn’t shift, no matter how much I exercised.  When I discussed the diagnosis with my GP, we agreed that I would try to control it through lifestyle changes rather than use medication.  That meant out went sugar.  all of it.  I was allowed none whatsoever.  For the first few weeks grocery shopping was not only a nightmare but very soul-destroying and depressing as I could no longer eat or drink item after item that I used to love.  If you want to know just how much everything we buy is loaded with sugar, I challenge you on your next shopping trip to check the ingredients of anything that comes in a packet, tin or jar.  99% of items will contain added sugar.  I am also only allowed three pieces of fruit a day and no more than three bananas a week.  Oh and I had to stop drinking beer (although wine and spirits were allowed, I do miss a pint and have to confess to having the odd one now again).  This does though mean that most of the food I now eat uses fresh ingredients.  And in spite of what you might think, this hasn’t led to a large increase in the shopping bill.

When out on the bike, I was one of those people who swore by sports drinks and energy bars.  Any ride longer than an hour would see me drinking some sort of energy drink, normally either SiS or Gatorade.  I had read research that said it was pointless doing this for any ride less than 2 hours in duration, but what do they know?  Even though every half litre bottle of Gatorade contains around 9 teaspoons of sugar, that’s ok isn’t it?  Well consider, on a three-hour ride, I would be ingesting at least 27 teaspoons of sugar!  So that was that, the drinks to go along with the recovery drinks.

But what to replace them with?  Although I have a lower risk of a hypo being triggered by low blood sugar than someone taking medication to control their diabetes, I can still feel like crap if my blood sugar goes too low.  And that is the last thing I want to happen when out on a long ride.  Anyone who has experienced the notorious ‘bonk’ will know just how bad that feels.  For drinks, I now use diluted fruit juice, preferably red grape.  But this is only good for the first two bottles.  After that I use electrolyte replacement drinks which do not contain sugar.  I then rely on food intake to make up the difference.  On the food front I have taken various dried fruits out with me, apricot by choice, and don’t worry too much about the three pieces day limit as I reckon that I will burn it off while riding.  And then there are the ham or cheese filled granary rolls which are easy to wrap individually and stash in my jersey pocket.

So what effect has this had on my performance?  The biggest change of all is that anecdotally, I do not get tired anything likely as quickly as I as getting just before I was diagnosed.  This means I can ride longer with what seems like less effort.  But what about the evidence?

Well of course, there might be any number of other factors that affect performance but here are my average speeds by year (nothing earth shattering with these 🙂 ):














It is interesting to see the gradual reduction in my average speed until 2011 when you might think that with regular training, the time should have increased.  The average length of each ride did increase over the same period of time which could have led to the slower annual average; riding longer brings down average speeds as I can’t maintain an initial 20 mph over 20 miles.  And in 2012, when my diabetes was in full swing, the average time actually increased which surprises me considering how bad I was feeling at the time.   Last year there was a slight increase when my diabetes was under control and I wasn’t using sport drinks.  The main conclusion I would draw from this though is that the vast amounts of sugar I consumed from sports drinks, didn’t seem to have an appreciable effect on my average speeds.

Although there was a slight improvement in my average speed in 2013, it was certainly not earth shattering.  But it also wasn’t slower than previous years which might suggest that the energy drinks made no difference whatsoever.

There is one specific ride which makes an interesting comparison.  Every year I take part in the Orchid Cycle Essex ride which is about 75 miles long.  In 2012 I rode at an average speed of 13. mph whereas last year it was up to 14.5 mph.  Not a tremendous difference but this is over 75 miles.

In conclusion, there have been small increases and decreases in my average speed over the years both pre- and post- being diagnosed with diabetes.  Stopping using sports drinks and energy bars and replacing them with natural drinks and food did not have an adverse effect on my performance so probably were a waste of money.  Regardless of this what, I do know is that l have felt a lot stronger and less tired when riding long distances since my diabetes has been under control.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s