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  • Kate Hall

Why It's Harder for Your Body to Recover with Type One Diabetes

What causes your body to become tired? Lack of sleep? Bad nutrition or dehydration? Too much pounding on the body from workouts? All of these contribute in some way to muscle fatigue. But what’s interesting about these things is they all have one thing in common: they are all stressors. Whether it’s physical stress, mental stress or the combination of both, it prevents your body from being in a state of equilibrium. Most people, if motivated enough, can control these stressors at least to a minimum. If they are able to do this, then they will be practicing and performing at their best.


There is a sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system active in your body. Sympathetic is fight or flight and parasympathetic is rest and recovery. Ideally, you want your body to be somewhere in between the two. For example, I have an HRV monitor that tracks what my “readiness” levels are each day that I practice. After a hard day, my monitor shows that my body is in rest/recovery mode by being more on the parasympathetic side. However, It’s not good for your body to be in fight or flight mode all of the time either. Since I have type one diabetes, my body is automatically more prone to having more sympathetic tone.

My body is frequently in a stressed state no matter what I do. I’m constantly controlling my blood sugars by determining the amount of insulin I need to give before each meal. It’s not the work that goes into this that becomes a stressor, but the constant fluctuations in blood sugars. Most people’s blood sugars stay constant at all times of the day (unless your flooding your system with insulin by eating too much sugar), but I have to work to keep mine at a good level. Internally, sympathetic tone or stress occurs from these constant ups and downs. There is an increased secretion of stress hormones such as cortisol that goes along with increased blood sugars, which automatically amplifies this sympathetic tone. Unfortunately, this also affects my sleep. When my body is already in a sympathetic state, it’s extremely hard to get into a parasympathetic or recovery state, which is the ideal state during sleep. This is why It’s always easier for me to sleep when my blood sugars are at a good level.

Fluctuating blood sugars are not only an internal stressor, but also an external one as well. I can easily feel the effects when my blood sugar goes high or low, something called diabetic fatigue. When It’s low, it feels like I have no energy and that I’m weak. This only makes sense, considering your brain’s main source of energy is glucose. If you have low blood glucose levels, there’s not a lot you can be good at. Trust me, I have tried practicing and competing with low blood sugars and it’s not fun. When it goes too low I get calf cramps and that’s just my body telling me to stop what I’m doing because it’s too much to handle without the right amount of fuel. It’s not much better when my blood sugars are high for an extended period of time either. My entire body feels very acidic, similar to how your legs feel at the end of a long race when there is lactic acid built up. This acid is not good if you’re trying to recover fast; that’s one reason why a 100 meter sprinter wouldn’t do repeat 400s the day before a competition. If there’s an acidic build up in my legs from high blood sugars, then just that would negatively affect my recovery.

I’ve always wondered why it takes just a little bit longer for my sore muscles to recover than others. Throughout college I always felt like my teammates would recover about a day quicker than I could. This could be partly due to just how my body works, but I do know that having diabetes causes inflammation. If it’s more difficult for my body to achieve a balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic, then the more difficult it is for my body to cope with inflammation.

At this point, all I can do is try to regulate my blood sugars the best that I can. Things are looking up though. Recently having a continuous glucose monitor showing my blood sugars live on my watch has helped me figure out where my blood sugars are trending during certain practices. Endurance type workouts quickly bring my blood sugar down, so I know I need to eat a snack before these practices. The more high intensity and low volume workouts are ideal for keeping my blood sugars stable; as long as my blood sugars start out at a good level then I don’t have to worry about them doing anything crazy during these practices. But unfortunately competing is the toughest time to control my blood sugars. Just like cortisol spikes my blood sugars, so does adrenaline. I have to pay extremely close attention to my blood sugars before and during my competitions because I know my nerves have a tendency to bring my blood sugars up. Before competitions I also have to plan exactly what time I will be eating throughout the day so that my blood sugars don’t go too high or too low. This is all added stress onto already having to sleep well, eat well, and stay hydrated, but fortunately I’ve had diabetes since I was ten years old and it’s nothing new for me. The technology has already improved tremendously since I was first diagnosed and I am very hopeful that it will continue to do so.

I'm going to end this saying that this is not a bad thing. This has only helped me become more aware of how my body feels and what it needs to train and compete well. I'm motivated now more than ever to hone in on every aspect of my training so that I can maximize my potential.

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