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Shared experience

“Start slow rather than not start at all” – doing endurance sport with type 1 diabetes

Jharna Kumawat was diagnosed with type 1 when she was six weeks pregnant. In the second part of her story, she tells us how she managed her type 1 around endurance swimming, which allowed her to swim the English Channel.

When I was a teenager back home in India, I swam competitively. I did regular squad swims, club swimming, and I represented my district.

I live in Essex and we’re very fortunate to have good access to open water. Just before lockdown I came across a coach and did a river swim and that’s how I started swimming again.

Getting support for endurance sport

When I started doing a long-distance swimming, I reached out to one of the diabetes dieticians, Felicity, and my usual diabetes nurse. They would tell me how to manage my glucose levels and how to cut my insulin or how to up it when needed (I’m on multiple daily injections). Felicity was awesome because she’s a triathlete, so it’s like talking to somebody who’s really walking the walk.

Swimming the English Channel

I swam a English Channel relay last year for a charity, SwimTayka.

I had two turns to swim. There were six people in the team and we each swam for an hour or 90 minutes.

When you swim the channel, you have to do a qualifying swim beforehand. You swim for 90 minutes, get out of the water for an hour to rest and then you go back in for an hour. The qualifying swim has to be in water no more than 15 degrees and you only swim in your swimsuit. I had trained for nine months in cold and rain in just my cozy, nothing else. You get used to it, but the cold and exercise can affect your blood sugars.

Managing type 1 with endurance swimming

Whenever I’m doing a long swim, I’d never go in without having my sugars in the target range, so I’ll probably go in with sugars of eight or nine. I’d make sure I’ve had half a protein bar or something. I carry a toe-float which has an electrolyte drink or Lucozade, and I have a hypo gel sachet on my top of my hat.

If I feel a bit ‘not right’, I’ll stop and I’ll have the gel. I’ve got a Dexcom continuous glucose monitor, but I sometimes don’t carry my phone because otherwise my Dexcom will go off and that really hampers with my swimming because it’s a mental game. Even if my body’s telling me I can swim, if my mind tells me not to, I can’t swim. So for a period of time I go and my instincts and how I feel.

There is no perfect way to do the job of your pancreas. The advice that I was given by my nutritionist, by my consultant was to swim at the level that I’m happy with. I’d prefer to have slightly higher levels that’ll see me through my swim than try to perfect it on single digits and then have a hypo.

When you swim the channel, everybody in the team has a buddy. My buddy knew exactly what to look for if I was having a hypo and how to test my blood sugars when I came out of the water. My sensor wouldn’t work because it’s too cold but I had my finger prick glucose meter to check my blood sugars and I was always given a warm electrolyte to drink after. It’s all of that support that I had that helped me.

The next challenge

I’ve swum Lake Coniston which is 5.2 miles. Next, I want to do the Triple Crown, which means swimming Lake Coniston, Ullswater (7.5 miles) and Windermere (11 miles) in one season. These open water swim events are usually scheduled every year in June, July and September.

For anyone starting to swim – or doing any exercise – I would tell them to start slow rather than not start at all. If you love walking, I would not stop walking, but if I was used to doing 10km, I would do five kms and see how I feel.

Go and tell your consultant, your nurse, your endocrinologist what you like doing. They will give you the tips and tools to help, but then keep going back because sometimes what worked for me a year back doesn’t work for me now.

Make friends with people in the circuit who do things and get knowledge from them. There are constant resources, but you have to be open. You just have to be open.

This article does not constitute medical advice. If you want to undertake endurance sports or any new exercise speak to your Diabetes Healthcare Team.

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