Disclaimer – This blog post is my own opinion and from my personal experience. No advice or guidance from this post should be considered without the support of your healthcare professional.
When people look at the title of this post and relate it to Football, they’ll immediately think it’s going to be about the emotions, triumphs and heartbreaking moments you get whilst being involved in this sport.
I’ve been through winning league titles, losing in cup finals, last minute goals, winning games as an underdog and they all help to create the magic that makes football the most entertaining sport in the world (in my opinion!). But this post isn’t about those moments! It’s about the way the body feels when playing with high and low blood sugar levels.
For me, playing with blood glucose levels at either end of the spectrum is an absolute nightmare. They pose different challenges with neither being conducive of playing to the best of my ability. I think before I talk about it any further, I should really point out that I don’t think any healthcare professional would allow me to play football in some of the states I’ve been in when going out onto the pitch. They’re rare occasions but I certainly wouldn’t recommend some of the approaches I’ve used in the past. HOWEVER, this is reality and I certainly haven’t lived my life from the healthcare professional textbook. I’ve adapted my treatments to the situations I’ve been in, to ensure that I can continue to do the things I enjoy doing, knowing I’m not going to let Diabetes stop me.
But what does it feel like to play with high or low blood glucose levels? Pretty horrible to be honest but I’ll try and describe how both feel to me.
With a low blood glucose level it feels to me like someone hit the zoom out button. The ball looks smaller, the mental cognition to control the ball isn’t as easy and processing your surroundings, your next pass or touch becomes extremely difficult. These are just the mental effects! This is without the shaking, feeling of fatigue, indescribably weird sensation of hunger and general feeling of lethargy. None of these feelings are likely to support a top quality performance, however I’ve found my recovery from hypo to normal, to be faster and easier to achieve than from a hyper (+14mmols). I wouldn’t recommend it, but there’s been quite a few times in the past where I’ve played through this feeling and had my Dad throw on a packet of dextrose tablets for me to devour over the course of 15 minutes. Reading this, you’re probably thinking why don’t I just get substituted off? The answer is because as a competitor I want to keep playing and often feel capable enough to deal with the hypo, continue to play my game and try to help the team win the match. There have been a few occasions though where it’s got the better of me and I’ve requested to be brought off, but that will have been after a serious attempt at treating the hypo to try and prevent the inevitable substitution. Healthcare professionals won’t ever recommend this approach but whilst I felt in control enough of the hypo symptoms and the game I was playing, I felt I could treat it and continue. After all this is reality and not from a textbook!
In contrast, the feeling of hyperglycaemia and levels running too high is twice as bad and far more difficult to shake in my opinion. I often liken the feeling to walking in water. Metaphorically I think it represents the struggle perfectly. Just like walking in water you’re trying to move in a direction and make progress, with something you can’t control holding you back and slowing you down. Hyperglycaemia really saps the energy from my legs and it feels like I lose at least a yard of pace in the game. As a result of this I think it’s more noticeable in more performance. I will try to avoid hyperglycaemia at all costs on match day as I think it is a greater risk to my ability to perform than hypoglycaemia, as the effects for me last longer. Unlike with a hypoglycaemia I never sought a substitution when suffering with this extreme. With football renowned for often dropping levels, I expected the exercise to resolve it but my performance suffered and frustration levels increased whilst awaiting this! The reality is that both hyper and hypo levels have a knock-on effect on my performance but vary in the length of time and physical impact that they have.
Summing it up perfectly is my Dad who’s normally watching this all unfold. More often than not, following a hypo, the post game debrief with my Dad usually contains the words “You would never have known.” Whereas if I experienced a hyper I’m likely to expect “You could tell in the way you played.” In his own way my Dad summarises which extreme of blood glucose level is more difficult to produce a performance which reflects my ability.
Of course much of my playing career has gone without experiencing these hiccups. However I feel it’s important we talk about the times when it does go wrong so the players, spectators, coaches and referees can try to understand how it feels to try and tackle the extremes of type 1 diabetes whilst playing football. I’ve never looked for excuses for a bad performance, regardless of whether my glucose levels have behaved or not. It’s not my style but as someone who’s never had the use of an insulin pump or CGM to play a game, I’m hoping people will understand how important it is to be in the correct range for your football and for your health as well as how difficult it can be to achieve this.