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Cycling with diabetes: tips, tricks and advice

Naeem Sonpra has been living with diabetes for over 30 years, but that doesn’t keep him from being an avid cyclist. Here are some of the tips and tricks he’s learnt over the years – read on if you want to master cycling with diabetes…

A stressful diagnosis

I was diagnosed on the 19th of November 1991, when I was 16 years old . It was during my final examination period, a stressful time for every school kid. What made it more stressful is that during my 2 hour exam period, I had to ask my invigilators to use the bathroom at least 2 times. Needless to say, after the second day they no longer thought it was nerves but something a little more mischievous. I mean, there are only so many pee breaks a teenage boy needs.

I eventually told my mum what I was experiencing. My mum knew immediately that there was something wrong. She knew the signs all too well since my older sister had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes just a few years earlier. That same day I was marched into the doctor’s office and experienced my first finger prick. Surprise, surprise, my glucose levels were 27mmol/l. The results had to be confirmed, though, and the next morning my parents took me for a fasting glucose blood test.

I was terrified of the results to be honest. I vividly remembered my sister’s first years as a diabetic and all the challenges that she had to go through. The thought of having to inject myself daily was scary. I prayed that this wasn’t what I was destined for. When we got the call from the doctor my heart sank… The blood test confirmed my worst fears.

The next week was a blur of doctor’s visits. First to learn how to use an insulin vial and syringe on my own, then how to test my sugar, and lastly the lecture on nutrition. At that time glucose strips were expensive and my doctor insisted it would be better to use the urine dip sticks.

It was the worst December holiday I have ever had, and when school came around again in January I didn’t want to go. I was painfully aware of the fact that I wasn’t like my peers. My teachers and family members had to carefully watch me. I was different, and every part of my lifestyle screamed it.

A few months after my diagnosis, I finally worked up the courage to join my friends for a game of soccer. It was the first time in months that I didn’t think about my diabetes. Little did I know that the hour of freedom came at a cost. That night my glucose levels plummeted and I was close to comatose. I opened my eyes to our family doctor standing over me trying to feed me a sugary drink. It all felt like a horrible dream, one that I’ve never forgotten.

This marked the end of sports for me for a while. 

Finding my footing with Type 1

Living in a small town in South Africa during the 90’s made it pretty difficult to connect with other Type 1 diabetics. My sister did her best to help me through the first few years, but I still felt like I was missing something; a way of connecting with others like me.

In the late 90’s the internet became more accessible and I found a few informative diabetes chat rooms. This was a game changer. I finally had access to more information from other diabetics around the world. There were many evenings where I would spend as much time as possible speaking to other Type 1s.

I realised that I could do anything, I just needed to know how to control my glucose levels. Over the next few years I started to play sports again and even took a trip to Egypt with my best friends. I was finally living life again.

In 2000 I started cycling. At first it was just around the neighbourhood to keep myself busy after work. I started joining other cyclists during the weekends and even took part in a few smaller races around Polokwane. In 2001 I decided to challenge myself and entered my first Cape Argus Cycle Tour. This was probably the hardest thing I had done up to this point and there were times where I thought I was going to give up. But I finished and my love for cycling just grew from that day onwards.

That love has driven me to be healthier and more determined than ever to keep my diabetes in check.  Cycling with diabetes is not simple, but I’ve figured out a few things that work for me.

Cycling with diabetes

To date I’ve completed two Johannesburg to Durban Tours; eleven 947 Cycle Challenges; five Cape Town Cycle Tours; six Kremetart Cycle Races; one Tour of Good Hope and several other smaller races around the country. Each one of these races came with their own challenges, and most of these I did long before I had the FreeStyle Libre. Since I started using the Libre, things have been much easier.

As you can imagine, there are very few places to keep a glucose meter when you’re wearing spandex. There are even less opportunities to stop and check your glucose levels without falling behind. A lot of the time I had to resort to guesswork, which as you know never really works for those of us with diabetes. Now that I have the Libre, I can scan while I’m cycling with ease – and see my data 24 hours a day.

cycling with diabetes

Constantly learning more about diabetes

Over time and with a lot of research I found ways to keep my glucose in check. I started researching other diabetic athletes, including the amazing cyclists on the Novo Nordisk team. I also started looking for medical professionals in South Africa that were working with athletes .

That’s how I found the Houghton CDE. Just when you think you can’t learn more about your condition, you find another ocean full of information that inevitably betters your life. Between my doctor, diabetes educator, nutritionist and biokineticist at the CDE, I was able to tailor my insulin according to my physical activity.

I also started working with a great cycling coach who made it his mission to find ways to keep my glucose in check during all of my rides. He taught me invaluable things like how many carbs to eat for each hour I’m on the bike and how to ensure I stay hydrated to avoid glucose spikes.

He even went as far as running an experiment to find out which brand of sports nutrition works the best to stabilise glucose levels. Now when I go out on a cycle, I know exactly how much food I need which is roughly 40g – 50g of carbohydrates every hour. I also keep an insulin pen with me on longer rides, in case I have a glucose spike. I would advise if you’re going to do this to use a pen or pen fill that is almost empty as there are no ways to really keep your insulin cool while you cycle or run. 

Advice for others with diabetes

There are two very important things I learnt during my diabetes journey.

  1. Some time ago I read this wonderful quote:

    “Every day with diabetes is like a science experiment. You just have to conduct your experiments until you learn what works”.

    Diabetes affects us all differently and most days it’s just about finding your sweet spot. Soak up as much knowledge as you can about your condition. Whether it’s watching YouTube videos, connecting on social media or reading books about diabetes, make sure to learn everything you can. We often fear what we don’t know, and being equipped with the right information makes it easier to quiet some of those inevitable insecurities that come with diabetes. I highly recommend reading Think like a Pancreas by Gary Scheiner for more information about insulin management.
  2. The saying, “It takes a village” is certainly true when it comes to treating diabetes. This doesn’t have to be a solo journey. It helps to have people to talk to – whether it’s family, friends, medical professionals or even others with diabetes on social media. 

What makes my life sweet

Despite having a “challenged” pancreas, I am healthy, happy and get to do all the things I love. I’m also blessed with a beautiful and supportive family – you can’t ask for anything sweeter than that. 

Connect with Naeem on Instagram: @the_intrepid_diabetic

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Sweet Life is a registered NPO/PBO (220-984) with a single goal: to improve diabetes in South Africa. We are funded by sponsorships and donations from aligned companies and organisations who believe in our work. We only share information that we believe benefits our community. While some of this information is linked to specific brands, it is not an official endorsement of that brand. We believe in empowering people with diabetes to make the best decisions they can, to live a healthy, happy life with diabetes.