Running a Half Marathon with Type 1 Diabetes

running half marathon type 1 diabetes

When my friend Anna – a type 1 diabetic — first told me she wanted to run a half marathon, I was thrilled beyond belief.

But I was also concerned. There was no doubt in my mind that she could do it, but obviously running a half marathon with type 1 diabetes is an entirely different challenge than running a half marathon (which we all know is an incredibly impressive challenge on its own).

We signed up for the race, and so I could help her as best as I could, I immediately wanted to know everything about how to train for a long-distance running event while also managing type 1 diabetes. I could help her with all of the basic training and race prep, but obviously there are so many more factors she’d need to take into consideration to make sure she could maintain healthy blood sugar levels.

The good thing was, she was already an avid exerciser and not entirely new to running. She is a huge Soul Cycle-er and also ran a good amount. On top of that, she had run shorter-distance races with me in the past, so she had a good base to work off of (which is extremely important).

Plus, she was diagnosed when she was about 11 years old, so she’s gotten good at managing her blood sugar over the years. Also she’s fortunate enough to have a great team of doctors that were willing to help her conquer this goal (you’ll read more about that soon). Essentially, even though this was a totally new challenge for her, she had the blood sugar management aspect of training pretty much on lock.

Still, though, I was curious and wanted to learn more about endurance running and running a half marathon with diabetes, so I did some googling and found there’s actually not that much info about it out there on the great, big World Wide Web.

There are some discussions on diabetes forums, a few bloggers and writers talking about their experiences, and some brief articles from Active and Runner’s World. To my surprise, though, there weren’t as many firsthand accounts as I was hoping to find, which is why I wanted to have Anna weigh in with her experience here.

So, now that she’s done the training and crossed the finish line (woohoo!) I asked her a few questions about the overall experience so that other runners looking for more advice on the subject might be able to find some more insight. Here’s what she had to say.

running a half marathon with type 1 diabetes

—Anna’s First Half Marathon—

What doctors did you work with and how did they help?
“My diabetes care comes from the team at the Naomi Berrie Diabetes center at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. I email with my nutritionist often and upload my pump and sugar data to a site where she can see what is going on. She gave me some tips from some expert athletes that she has worked with and how they manage it. I didn’t actually register for the race until I talked things through with her first.”

*Note from Katie: I wanted everyone to read this first because this is the most important part of the process. If this is something you want to do, you must consult your doctor first. No ifs, ands or buts. No amount of Internet articles or blog posts can help you properly prepare for running a half marathon with type 1 diabetes. You must consult your doctor first and continue to work with him/her through your training.

What was the biggest challenge during your training?
“All of it? It was hard to come home after a day of work and a) psych myself up enough to run after being around 27 children all day (Anna is a teacher, FYI) or b) get my sugar where it needed to be to run. After being on my feet for most of the day and running around usually at around 4 to 5 o’clock I need to be thinking about dinner and eating something bigger than a snack. There were days I had to just say, ‘OK it’s not going to happen,’ and I just need to be okay with that.”

Did you see overall improvements in your sugar through training?
“Definitely. I was able to eat more than I normally would (since I was working harder I was always hungry) without having to take a ton more insulin. My sugars overnight improved a lot to the point where I cut my hourly rate almost in half. During my last appointment, all of my hourly (basal) rates were cut lower, meaning I need less insulin day to day because I am more active.

What did you do to prepare before long runs/the race?
“Besides freak out? I had to wake up at about 3 to 4 a.m. to set my insulin pump at a temporary rate that was lower than my normal hourly rate, that way there was less insulin in my system before I actually started the run. I also made sure to eat something more “sugary,” usually a mini bagel with peanut butter or egg whites or for runs longer than 8 miles, a regular bagel (scooped out) with peanut butter. This would keep me a bit higher than normal so that my blood sugar wouldn’t plummet straight down, but do more of a gradual decline. I wear a special belt made for diabetic runners that holds my pump, my dexcom glucose sensor, some glucose tabs and GU.”

What advice would you give to other diabetics who want to run a half marathon? What did you learn?
“Talk to your doctor, start slow. I didn’t magically decide, ‘Oh hey I want to run a half marathon.’ I had some experience running 5Ks. As any runner (diabetic or not) training is a serious commitment, you can’t just push it to the side and say ‘I’ll do it later,’ everyday. Checking runs off of my training plan gave me a feeling of accomplishment. Of course, having one of my best friends to support me and talk me through (and analyze) all of my runs really helped.

“I do have some goals in mind, though. Due to the fact that the race was so disorganized I had to modify my ‘race day’ plan and ended up with much higher blood sugar than I wanted. I was more dehydrated during the race which was uncomfortable and frustrating. I am aiming to come up with a plan A, B, and C for next time, and I want to aim to be less afraid of dropping low and keep my blood sugar in a safer range. Obviously, diabetes will never be perfect and this was a learning experience for me. I hope to keep improving my control and fine tuning it during my training as well. You need to start somewhere!”

running a half marathon with type 1 diabetes
Anna and I waiting to get to the start line at the Run Rock ‘n’ Roll Brooklyn Half Marathon.

Not gonna lie, reading this makes me tear up a little. I’m so inspired by Anna. I’m inspired by the fact that she accomplished this goal. And by the fact that she finished the training and the race with about the same amount of complaints as any other runner might have (i.e., these long runs are getting so boring, oh crap I need to reschedule my long run to accommodate for life, and during the race at mile 12, can this please just be over now?!). Not once did I ever hear about how diabetes was an obstacle. In fact, until I asked her the questions to write this post I had no idea she was waking up at 3 or 4 a.m. before long runs to set her insulin. What a freakin’ superstar.

andy dwyer mind blown the office gif
(image via Giphy)

The point: well, this is going to sound cliche as hell but, the point is you can do anything you set your mind to and a positive attitude will be your most valuable tool.

Now, time to chat!

Are you a diabetic runner? If you have more questions about Anna’s experience, let me know! Or, if you’d like to share your own experience please don’t be shy! Give a shout in the comments section below!

  1. Just an FYI I have run 16 Half Marathons as a types diabetic on an insulin pump. I will be training for my 1st marathon in 2016. It is not always easy and things don’t always go as planned but it certainly is fun and wouldn’t change a thing.

    1. WOW! That’s seriously incredible, Becky! What Marathon will you be training for and is there anywhere I and others can follow along? I’d love keep up with your training progress and hear about how the race goes!

      1. Unfortunately I’m not much of a blogger more of a follower. I do use runkeeper on my runs if you would like to send me a friend request thru that you can follow my training and races up to the marathon. I live in Florida and my plan is to run the Steamtown marathon in PA as that is where all my family is and since I have a lot of runners in my family feel I will have a lot of support. I’m doing a half this coming Saturday 10/25 then the Savannah Rock n Roll half in Nov. In Jan and Feb I’m running 2 more halfs not quite sure what will be on the schedule after that. I’m not very fast, my best finish has been a 2:55 but I think this year might be my best ever. I do post on Facebook but usually just about the races on race day.

        1. Cool! I just found you on RunKeeper so I can follow along 🙂 Good luck in your half this weekend! And at the Savannah Rock n Roll half! Sounds like you’re well on your way to that marathon goal. So exciting! Please do check back in (here with a comment or shoot me an email- to let me know how everything goes!

          1. Thanks for accepting my invite. I’ll be sure to keep in touch

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