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Navigating Type 1 Diabetes as a Pro Athlete

Most Type 1 diabetics would agree that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to effective blood sugar management. But when you find those foods and lifestyle choices that work – the things that create a steady and positive shift to diabetes management – it can be incredibly empowering. 

We chat to cyclist Type 1 Warrior, Sam Brand about how he navigates his diabetes amidst an often gruelling and demanding schedule as a pro athlete. Sam is part of Team Novo Nordisk - the world’s first all-diabetes professional cycling team.

When were you diagnosed with Type 1? 

If I look back now, this journey, this adventure, these experiences and opportunities began on the 14th November 2001 - World Diabetes Day. The day I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. This was really where everything began for me. Not an end but a beginning. I didn’t know anything about the condition, there weren’t many people on the Isle of Man (especially my age) living with the condition and it was a new chapter in my life. I had fantastic support from my parents and family, as well as the Island’s diabetes clinical team. They allowed me to make decisions, grow with the condition and be my own person. 

Have you always been sporty?

I’d grown up around sport, with my parents and in particular my father organising and competing in local events here on the Isle of Man. I represented the Isle of Man at the majority of sports including Basketball, Athletics, Cross Country to name a few. Living on the Isle of Man, opportunities were few but there was a junior race yearly that I would ferociously compete in. I loved it. 

Heading to university in 2011, coming off the back of winning the Isle of Man Cross Country Championships - I decided I wanted to give Triathlon a go. Alongside my diabetes, I felt it was a great outlet to spend some spare time at university. I dove in and haven’t looked back. In my first 12 months I’d qualified to represent Great Britain at the World Triathlon Championships in London. 

How did you get into professional cycling?

It was around the time of the Championships that I connected with Team Novo Nordisk - the world’s first all-diabetes professional cycling team.

Over the next three years at university, I continued on this journey representing Great Britain at three international events including world and European championships. I did this whilst also representing the Team Novo Nordisk Elite Team (triathlon/running). 

Fast forward to 2015, I’d graduated and flew out to Atlanta, Georgia for the Team Novo Nordisk Talent ID camp where I was offered the chance to switch solely to cycling. After a month of a graduate placement, I handed in my notice and became a full-time cyclist. The rest is history! I signed professional in 2018, less than 20 months after my first ever cycling race. 

Tell us about your mindset…

I often say that diabetes is the best thing that ever happened to me. This is met with a lot of shocked faces, usually from the parents of a young person with diabetes - but hear me out. It’s not always easy, it’s definitely not always straight forward, there are ups and downs, but my diagnosis gave me a resilience, a community, a job, a mission, a team and a family - something to fight for. To empower everyone around the world affected by diabetes. 

What does a typical day of eating look like? 

Every day is different. Within cycling, not only the type of food but the timing is crucial and this is especially so when taking diabetes into the equation. It’s a constant balancing act. 

Periodisation, carbs, proteins, fats, macros - they’re all relevant. Training day eating is different to racing but trying to incorporate race like situations are vital in helping me prepare for big competitions. 

Discovering Fullgreen has been such a game changer. I am a huge foodie and often require volume to feel full. I sometimes use it instead of rice, or carbohydrate-rich foods if I’m trying to keep calories low for the day - often an easier day on the bike. On these days I’ll eat light – often working Fullgreen into an easy salad or tabbouleh that gives me a fast, filling, Low GI carbohydrate alternative and allows me to consume larger portions of food that help me feel full. 

For harder, longer training days I’ll rely more on a higher carbohydrate intake, using Fullgreen is a salad as a starting dish to ensure I get some extra veg in. As a professional athlete, proteins, carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables are all crucial in maintaining peak performance. 

Can you tell us a bit about your T1D management? 

Health and body management is something that is incredibly important, full stop, but for an elite athlete it becomes a huge part of my job. I wear a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) to allow me to keep track of my blood sugar in real time, both on and off the bike, and from this I am able to make real time changes and adaptions based on my blood sugar levels. 

If my blood glucose is higher and heading out of range, I can make changes, and if it’s low I can take on board more fuel to keep my levels as steady and in target as possible. It really is a vital piece of equipment. The rest is making sure I am in the best shape possible as a professional cyclist.

I’ve found that the bike and exercise in general enables me to have a better understanding of my diabetes management. No matter what, diabetes or not, any athlete or human would run out of energy at some point. I feel that living with diabetes for over 20 years now, I have a great level of understanding of my body. 

What foods really help nail your nutrition whilst supporting your diabetes management? 

I’m a firm believer in everything in moderation - all food groups have their place. Lower GI foods allow for less fluctuations but sometimes, higher GI foods allow for recharging after heavy sessions. I love to incorporate fruit and vegetables, especially those that are in season locally. I’ve always been taught to ‘eat the rainbow’ so that’s very much something I aim for. 

Where can we find you when you’re not on the bike?  

I’m a bit of an adventurer and love to learn new skills. I love to be out in the fresh air, taking and editing photographs and spending time with family and friends. Family is a big priority for me and I can often be found on walks with my parents, brother, sister-in-law and nephew, and our wonderful boxer, Alfie. 

Tell us about your work in the wider diabetes community

I am very much an advocate and want to help as many people as I can living with diabetes. I spend time giving talks and trying to positively effect change in this community with everything I do.

It takes as little as 30 seconds to change someone’s life for the better, whether that’s a smile, a quick chat or empowering someone else. I live by the idea that if we make our own part of the world better, the whole world can and will be better. Step by step, one smile at a time. 

Follow Sam on Instagram at samuelnealbrand

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