Nicola Stiddard and Rob Hartley are both VPTs and instructors at Gymbox Covent Garden, who are about to run a 100k ultra marathon for the JDFR Foundation to raise money for diabetes research. Nicola was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes seven years ago, and instead of hindering her life, she has used it to launch her career in fitness. "I want to inspire people. I don't think diabetes should hold anyone back. It should make you work harder. I want to break the stigma and educate people". We meet this power couple.
Hi Nicola, Rob – you both work at Gymbox, what have been the highlights during your time there?
N (Nicola): My highlights of working at Gymbox have been meeting some incredible people who push me to work harder and learn more. Seeing my long term clients grow and develop in to more confident happier versions of themselves. When you work in a gym environment it's very easy to get caught up in training your own group of clients. But, it's pretty incredible when you stop and think that every single person I walk past in that gym is there to help themselves grow, and to improve themselves. When you stop and look, there's actually inspiration everywhere.
R (Rob): Having just moved to London and not knowing anyone prior to working in Gymbox, one of the biggest highlights for me has been meeting interesting characters from all walks of life. Many of my clients have become good friends, as have the other VPTs, Gymbox staff, and some of the other Gymbox members. I’ve been able to surround myself with like minded people who are passionate about fitness, which has helped motivate me in my own training and coaching. I specialise in sport specific training, strength and conditioning. And more specifically, CrossFit.
Nicola – you were diagnosed with this type of diabetes, tell us about this.
N: I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes seven years ago when I was 17 years-old. I remember it like it was yesterday. I'd been ill for about six months, and nobody could work out what was wrong with me. I was seeing doctors, dentist and opticians. I was getting terrible migraines affecting my whole face, including my teeth. Everything ached. I was getting waves of sickness, I went from a healthy size 14 down to a small size 8-10 in a matter of weeks. I was urinating a lot (getting up about six times a night), and I was severely dehydrated – no amount of water could clench my thirst. I was exhausted all the time and was struggling to process information. Eventually all the symptoms came together, and on my final trip to the doctors I was told if they didn’t get me to the hospital in the next hour I would slip in to a diabetic coma due to ketone acidosis. They sent me straight to the hospital.
How did this affect your every day life at the time?
N: Back then I didn't know anything about diabetes, I had no idea the impact it had on day-to-day living, how keeping blood sugars in the correct zone could be so difficult. I had no idea that anything and everything can affect your blood sugars. How something as simple as miscounting carbohydrates in a meal can send your sugars sky rocketing, or plummeting. How running for a bus could cause you to collapse. How stress could make your sugars soar. I also had no idea how mentally exhausting it is to never get a second off. To constantly be thinking about where your blood sugar is at – is it going up or down, what am I doing to cause me to drop or increase. I had no idea what was heading in my direction.
So tough. How did you not let the condition impact on your career in fitness?
N: When I went to university I begun to make it my mission to prove to people that having this diagnosis wouldn't stop me. I joined the rowing team, and begun training up for a half marathon. Then I moved in to triathlons. Last year I completed my first marathon around the trails between Brighton and Eastbourne, this year I'm doing an ultra marathon. I want to inspire people. I want people to look at me and see I can do it, even with diabetes. I trained myself up from having below average fitness levels to where I am now, and it's just commitment. I don't think diabetes should hold anyone back. It should make you work harder. I want to break the stigma and educate people about the difference between type one and type 2 diabetes. I think people need to understand the severity of the condition (as many people continue to make jokes about it).
Can you explain to us the differences between the types?
N: Type 1 diabetes can affect anyone and any given time. No one knows what causes it, but it's not caused by a bad diet. Type 1 diabetes mean that your pancreas has stopped producing insulin completely (insulin being what controls your blood sugar levels). Type 2 diabetes is caused by having a bad diet, lack of exercise and can be hereditary. This is where your pancreas does still work, but produces very little insulin.
You’re both running 100k across the Cotswolds to raise money for JDRF, a diabetes charity – how are you training for it?
N: We both come from a CrossFit background, and that does make up a huge percent of our training. However, we have started including one long run once a week – or every other week – between 20-35km. With ultra marathons it's important to spend as much time on your feet as possible. With our jobs this is not a problem! The run just gets us used to sustaining the pace needed to run the ultra. I have also started running to and from work just to get some bonus miles in.
R: I’ve started incorporating a small run (around 5k) or some other form of mono-structural cardiovascular exercise most mornings whilst I'm in my fasted state. I’ll then have a more intensive CrossFit based workout later in the afternoon which will usually comprise of a mixture of weightlifting, gymnastics and metabolic conditioning. Fortunately, good endurance is fairly essential in my daily training. However, I have little experience of long distance running. We’re taking part in a half marathon the weekend prior to the ultra marathon, so that will act as a good warm-up for the main event. Fingers crossed neither of us get injured.
Do you/have you trained people affected by diabetes, or other conditions?
N: Yes, I've trained quite a few type 1 diabetics who have heard about me through word-of-mouth. I've trained a few girls who didn’t know where to start in regards to exercise, as were too scared it would lead to constant hypos (sugar levels going too low). They've also come to me due to the lack of understanding out there about the condition. If they have to stop and test their blood sugars other PTs may panic. But for me I know it's just to check they are within range, it doesn’t necessarily mean there's a problem.
What advice would you give to someone with diabetes who wants to get fitter but is afraid to do so alone, or with a trainer?
N: I think it's important when you're diabetic to maintain as healthy lifestyle as possible. And yes, you will have days when you exercise, then your blood sugar drops and you end up stuffing your face with jelly babies wondering if it was worth it. But, I think it's important not to give up. The more you exercise, the better you get at understanding what your body needs, and can predict how your sugars will react to exercise. It's not easy, but it's worth it. I recommend either finding a trainer who understands your needs and concerns, or training with a bunch of friends who understand your diabetes. Just have fun – find an exercise regime that you enjoy. Also, increase your exercise load gradually. This gives you time to see over the following 24 hours how your sugar levels have reacted.
Sound advice. Is there a stigma attached to the condition? If so, why is this?
R: Yes, there's definitely is a stigma attached to the condition. This is mainly because most people aren’t aware of the differences between type 1 and 2 diabetes. We often hear of how certain foods high in sugar and bad life choices can result in diabetes. People associate poor diet and excess bodyweight with diabetes, which can be true for type 2 Diabetes but is certainly not the case for type 1.
What do you find the most inspiring aspects about each other?
N: Rob takes everything as it comes, and nothing phases him! He's the calmest person I know. He's also the most driven and ambitious person I know, forever having new ideas and testing them out.
R: Nicola has a strong growth mindset, and is constantly looking to challenge herself. She might not have been dealt a great deck with type 1 diabetes, but she’s already achieved more than most both in fitness and business.
How has dealing with the condition changed you most as people?
N: I honestly don’t think I'd be working in the fitness industry if I hadn’t been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. It's changed my whole outlook. It's made me super determined to push myself harder and harder, and set out to achieve exactly what I want. It's taught me patience and commitment. When you get a condition thrown on you like I did, you have no choice but to commit to it, and work alongside it. At the same time, some days your blood sugars are all over the place, for no reason whatsoever, and those are the days you have to be patient and tell yourself ‘its OK, you're doing your best, tomorrow's a new day, let's try again then.’ These qualities have definitely made me who I am in every day life.
R: It’s made me appreciate and take care of my own health, and appreciate the struggles that many people have to go through on a day to day basis – not just with type 1 diabetes, but with any life altering condition. Seeing Nicola go through some rocky moments has made me realise how much I care for her, and respect what she’s achieved, despite what she's had to deal with.
Nicola, for the 100k run (and all the other events you have undertaken) how do you keep your blood sugars level/in check during the event?
N: The technology in diabetes control has moved on tremendously since I was diagnosed. Most recently a new device called the ‘freestyle libre’ has come out. This is a sticker that you attach to your arm. You scan it and it shows your blood sugars along with an arrow to show whether your sugars are going up, down, or are stable. I wear this for big events, and scan it regularly. I also make sure I start the event with my blood sugars a little high, as exercise will drop them very quickly. I also make sure I carry energy gels full of sugar, just to keep my levels topped up.
What does the funding you raise for the charity get spent on?
JDRF fund research that will cure, treat and prevent type 1 diabetes and its complications. They focus on investing in research that will transform the lives of people with type 1 diabetes – improving treatments until a cure is found. This mission cannot be carried out in isolation, so they work with partner organisations to make sure they can change lives for the better, as quickly as possible. Research is done to find the cure to give people the ability to make their own insulin again. Finally research is being undertaken to prevent type 1 diabetes, this would mean lifting the burden of this condition from future generations.
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