Hypoglycemia and sports: what you need to know

Hypoglycemia is a condition that some athletes develop when doing their workouts. Why happens? Here we explain it.

Last update: August 25, 2021

Low blood sugar is known as hypoglycemia. The decline is characterized by causing symptoms such as fatigue, dizziness, palpitations, sweating, pale skin, and tremors. This is a relatively common condition when exercising, be it aerobic or anaerobic. So today we show you everything you should know about hypoglycemia and sports.

Just because it's common doesn't mean it's healthy at all. Surely you have experienced it several times, or have seen it in marathons or cycling races. What is known as "hitting the wall" or bonking it is actually one of the manifestations of exercise-induced hypoglycemia. We will tell you in the following lines why it happens and what you can do about it.

Why does hypoglycemia occur in sports?

Before explaining the relationship between hypoglycemia and sports, you must first understand what happens in your body when you do physical activity. Glucose is the gasoline your body uses to function. When you do sports, your body takes advantage of it to compensate for the energy expenditure that involves the physical and mental effort of exercising.

This is stored in the muscles (in the form of glycogen), the liver and in the form of fat when there is a surplus. Since it is easier to use, the body prefers to use the first two deposits. If these are not enough to cope with the activity you are developing, it will generate a picture of hypoglycemia induced by exercise.

That is, your body demands a greater amount of glucose to cope with the physical effort of the moment. If your reserves are not enough, then there will be a decompensation in the organism. In very simple terms, it is as if you wanted to travel a thousand kilometers on half a tank of gasoline. Of course, this is not the only mechanism by which this condition occurs.

Feeling of fatigue and dizziness are typical symptoms of sport-induced hypoglycemia.

Reactive hypoglycemia

Reactive hypoglycemia, also known as 'postprandial hypoglycemia', is the drop in blood glucose levels right after each meal (precedes a rapid rise). It is a natural process that occurs in all people, only that in some the decrease in values ​​is lower than in others.

It usually occurs between 1 and 4 hours after consuming a food. At some point in this period, your glucose levels will drop below normal for your body. If you exercise right at that time, then you are much more likely to experience hypoglycemia from sports.

The fall in values ​​is conditioned by the type of food you have eaten. The glycemic index (GI) will determine how quickly sugar will be metabolized in the body. It is cataloged on a scale of 1 to 100 and is divided into high, medium and low. For example, lentils have a GI of around 26 (low), while white bread has a GI of 73 (high).

If your diet revolves around foods with a high glycemic index, these will be used more quickly in your body, which will also shorten the pictures of reactive hypoglycemia. Later we will explain what you can do to alleviate this disorder.

Diabetes and hypoglycemia when playing sports

Another explanation for exercise-induced hypoglycemia is found in diabetes. In fact, most of the time it is referred to in the context of this condition. The dosage of insulin or antidiabetic drugs taken by mouth may not correspond to the metabolic needs of the moment.

In these cases, the sequelae can manifest themselves during sports activity, or even 24-48 afterwards. The insulin / antidiabetic dose, the patient's diet and sudden changes in training schedules combine with each other to generate episodes of this type.

Generally speaking, these are the three reasons why there is a drop in blood glucose. According to the researchers, most cases are reported 20 minutes after starting the activity.

In addition, studies indicate that, apart from the symptoms described, it can alter thermoregulatory adaptation and weaken muscles and tendons (which translates into an increased risk of injury).

Tips to Avoid Exercise-Induced Hypoglycemia

There are many things you can do to avoid this condition. The most important thing is to modify your diet in relation to the type of activity you are doing. Every athlete, whether amateur or professional, must implement a diet that meets their energy demands.

When you omit this, you fail to progress in your discipline and you expose yourself to these episodes that put your health in check. Even if the program you choose is personalized, it is recommended to avoid the classic distribution of three meals, and replace them with portions of six throughout the day.

A healthy and balanced diet is essential to avoid episodes of low glucose.

According to the researchers, these they must have a leading role in supplements and carbohydrates. Still, you should include other nutritional groups for a balanced diet.

You should also avoid skipping breakfast or going out to train on an empty stomach (regardless of your sport). It is known that most cases of low glucose are generated when people train under these conditions. Other things you can keep in mind are the following:

  • See a nutrition specialist so that it can design a food plan based on your caloric requirements.
  • Avoid including only foods with a high glycemic index in your diet.
  • Use supplements if you train with high intensity disciplines.
  • Check your blood glucose index regularly if you are a diabetic patient.
  • Consult with your specialist if you suffer from diabetes and experience these episodes.
  • Make sure you eat well before and after every workout.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, preferably water. Cut down on coffee, alcohol, sugary drinks, and other "substitutes" for it.
  • Create habits in terms of the times you choose to train.
  • Get a general analysis of your health with a qualified doctor.

In short, maintaining a healthy life will help you avoid sports hypoglycemia. If you suffer a recurrence of the cases, do not hesitate to consult a specialist. Some metabolic disorders and underlying diseases may be altering the way your body uses the glucose you consume.