Persistence and Power: An Interview with Diabetic Powerlifter Ginger Vieira

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Last month we published an essay by Ginger Vieira, A Powerlifter’s Mind in a Type 1 Body which touched on an issue that’s always on my mind- how to manage the carbohydrate intake I require to run marathons without losing control of my blood sugar level.  I enjoyed the essay very much, but I wanted to know more.  I had the opportunity to talk to Ginger, whose book “Your Diabetes Science Experiment” on this subject and more, will be available by the end of January at www.Living-in-Progress.com.

There are a lot of sports out there to chose from.  Why did you choose powerlifting? How did you get started?

I’ve always loved the idea of physical strength and physical power.  Even as a little girl, I loved Arnold Schwarzenegger (I grew up in a house of boys). I dabbled in a lot of sports when I was younger. One summer during college, I was sick of feeling unhealthy, so I joined a new gym and started weightlifting with the basics I’d learned from my brothers over the years. I also started going to Ashtanga yoga classes (power yoga) three days a week.

I just fell in love with weightlifting and yoga. By the end of the summer, I’d lost 10 pounds and gained a noticeable amount of definition in my legs and shoulder muscles. When I got back to school my senior year of college, I knew I might need help keeping exercise a priority when things got busy, so I hired a personal trainer.

With my trainer Andrew Berry, I got stronger and stronger and was training seriously 4 days a week. A year later, I’d at least doubled my strength. Someone saw us bench-pressing and said, “You should get that girl in a competition!” So we began to learn the rules and lifting techniques for competitive weightlifting. The training for powerlifting is much, much different than simply going into the gym to workout. You have to train your body to lift something as heavy as possible only once, rather than doing multiple repetitions. Form, technique and practice are crucial.

(I also started my yoga instructor certification training that fall, too!)

My doctor thinks I’m totally out of my mind for running marathons.  What did your doctor say when you chose your sport?

Sadly, he just rolled his eyes at me and dismissed the entire thing! I was really hurt and angry because I was hoping this doctor would say, “All right! That’s exciting and ambitious, how can I support you?”

I never went back to that doctor. I didn’t have health insurance at the time so that really marked the point where I began studying human physiology more in order to understand (without the help of doctors) how powerlifting and nutrition truly impacts every part of my body.

Nutrition is a key factor for all sports. How has powerlifting affected your eating?  Do you need to eat more than before? Do you need more insulin?

Powerlifting and being in the weightlifting/fitness community in general has taught me so much about nutrition. The emphasis on “clean foods” and eating smaller meals more often is a huge part of training well. I really studied my eating habits and closely watched my macronutrient intake (carbs, fats, protein) for the first year so I could learn and make changes. It is a never ending learning process. I’ve changed the foods in my diet many times throughout the past two years, trying to see what makes my body feel the most energized and strong. In the end, it comes down to good, clean food that hasn’t been processed.

I’ve pretty much removed all artificial sweeteners and caffeine from my diet, and I try to avoid eating meat that isn’t organic.  I’ve come to a point where I really value what I put in my body.

When I’m training in powerlifting, I absolutely need more calories and especially more carbohydrates. That’s probably the hardest part for me, eating enough when I need to eat it, because you can’t just sit down and eat all those calories at once.  While powerlifting does lead me to put on a little more body fat, my insulin sensitivity and insulin needs are lower during training because my body is working so hard to recover from the training.

In the beginning of January, I found out the pain in my hip I’ve felt for the past year is actually the result of a herniated disc.  I tore L5, so I’m off the iron for a bit to heal. Lots of cardio for me instead. I’ve taken up jumping rope. It’s killer!

How has your blood sugar control been since you started to powerlift? Is your HbA1c better?

My A1c during college before powerlifting had crept its way up to 8.3% when I was being lazy and eating junky food. It’s been between 6.5% to 7.3% for the past three years since making exercise and clean-eating a bigger part of my life.

The other thing is that before I was lifting weights and doing yoga, my Lantus insulin dose was 35 units a day, and after only four or five months, I had reduced it  to 25 units. During intense training, I’ve even lowered it to 21 units. That is true evidence how quickly exercise impacts our insulin sensitivity.

When I talk to other runners (especially during events) I often feel handicapped when they talk about their pre-race eating (pasta dinners, etc). Do you have similar feelings?

It’s trickier with diabetes, for sure.  That’s why I studied the physiology behind what was happening in my body so intensely, and wound up learning much more than I’d ever learned in the doctor’s office. Trying to balance my blood sugar on an actual competition day is the hardest part because the adrenaline makes my blood sugar go sky-high, and my insulin sensitivity is so blunted that no amount of short-acting insulin will make it budge. Instead, I learned to increase my long-acting insulin dose. It’s all about trial and error. Getting information and trying again.

But even in the every day training, it’s really important to have stable blood sugars because:

1. You need to have the energy to endure the training.

2. Your body can’t heal and recover as well if your blood sugar is high.

3. You’re asking your body to do a lot of work and repair from all that lifting, so you’ve gotta treat it well.

What difficulties do you face that non-diabetic powerlifters don’t deal with?

An odd challenge is making your weight-class and completely dehydrating your body the few days before you weigh-in. Doing this as a diabetic taught me so much about insulin dosing and titration. When I’m preparing my body for a weigh-in, I have to adjust my insulin doses quickly for a very short period of time in order to be as safe as possible. My blood sugars have to be pretty much perfect to make that process of dehydration happen smoothly and safely.

I’ve read Scott K. Johnson’s post about your health and chronic illness life coaching. How did you get started?

I really enjoy working with people facing overwhelming challenges and helping them see that they are capable of accomplishing their goals. Whether it’s in the gym or in how they think about themselves and their lives.

I made the decision to go through David Rock’s ResultsCoaches.com because his coaching theory is based completely on how the brain thinks and develops habits. As your coach, I help you break apart those habits and build new ones in a way that is not overwhelming.

Too much change at once is too much for many of us to handle, which is why we don’t always reach the goals we’ve set out for ourselves. As your coach, I make it a step-by-step process, and help you look at the bigger picture of who you are, what you truly want for your health and what you really need to do, gradually, to make life-long changes.

Do you mainly coach diabetics?

I coach anyone interested in improving or changing or developing the way they think and feel about themselves and their health. I work with people on the phone, so coaching can be done from anywhere.

Do you coach children with diabetes or families with diabetic kids?

I do! For younger people with diabetes where the whole family is really involved, it’s really important to help everyone strengthen the way they view this disease. I’ve worked with families in which I work independently with the parents, and then with the child, as well as having everyone sit down together and really look at how diabetes is impacting the home.

In the past, sometimes kids with diabetes were made to feel sick or told not to take part in physical activities. What do you tell children with diabetes?

Run! Play! Whatever! It’s all about figuring out what adjustments you need to make in your insulin and your nutrition in order to exercise and play sports. If you’re upset that you can’t keep your blood sugar up during a soccer game, but you haven’t taken the time to make sure to consistently eat enough grams of carbohydrates before every game, then you’re missing a key part of living with diabetes and balancing around exercise. It’s all about trial and error, getting information and making adjustments.

What’s your number one message to people with diabetes, especially to those newly diagnosed?

Just do your best today and keep learning. Your insulin needs will change throughout your entire life and you’ll continually need to keep adjusting and experimenting. Be patient with yourself.  You don’t have to do it perfectly in order to be doing a great job.

Michael Aviad is co-founder of ASweetLife.

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Comments (5)

  1. Carlos R. at

    I’m a friend of Ginger’s on Facebook and ever since I told her my story she has changed my outlook on living with diabetes.  I was diagnosed as a teenager and now at the age of 35 I’m having complications because of not managing it throughout the years.
    I’ve added exercise and I’ve changed the way I eat and now I’m feeling better.  My insulin intake is slowly decreasing!  I can’t thank Ginger enough for giving me the inside scoop on how to get better control of my diabetes.
     
     
    Carlos R

  2. Mike Ratrie at

    This is quite an inspiring story. Thanks!
     
    Fair Winds,
    Mike

  3. Ross at

    Thanks for this… Heard an interview with Ginger a few months ago, talking as a Type 1 myself, I think shes brilliant!

  4. Michael & Ginger!  This is an *excellent* interview!
    You are both incredible in my book.  Michael running marathons and all that you’ve taught yourself through trial and error, and Ginger, heck, do I even need to talk about why I’m your number one fan?
    Thanks for the mention in the article, that was a fun surprise for me.  :-)

  5. Michael Aviad at

    Thanks Scott. it means a lot get that kind of comment.

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