Swimming on the Pump

There is a belief that insulin pump users will not have any problems swimming. This may be true for those that dabble in a swimming pool but it is definitely not true for those that swim any distance or do such crazy things as flip turns and racing dives.

I have had type 1 diabetes for 60 years. I switched to the pump last year because it allows me to change basal rates throughout a 24-hour period which seems to be the best thing for my somewhat “brittle” diabetic profile. I also use Humalog in my pump because it provides the rapid action ideal for use with a pump.

I was a competitive swimmer in university and am now competing in Master’s swimming. Since I am a professor of oceanography at the University of British Columbia, water has always been part of my life. Since starting the pump I’ve had to come to grips with the challenges of trying to swim a workout and swimming in competition. Believe me, there have been some problems – but fortunately I have overcome them with a few unique twists and turns so to speak.

You might wonder, are pumps really waterproof? MiniMed makes a case that provides a waterproof container for its pump and Disetronic makes a pump that is waterproof after the insulin chamber vents are plugged with the tappet they provide. It should be noted, however, that in both cases, the term “waterproof” means close to the surface, probably less than nine feet in depth. This means that with either pump, waterproofing can be done easily but don’t rely on your pump for scuba diving.

One problem I’ve experienced is what to do with my pump when I wear a racing suit for workouts and for competition. Stopping to disconnect and reconnect is definitely not a time-saving thing in a triathlon event and is not recommended during any multi-event swimming meet. It is much easier for a woman wearing a one-piece suit to carry her pump, but for a man with a racing suit there is definitely a problem – a pump and a length of tubing are not the best of friends in a 50-meter sprint!

So, I decided that I would have to develop a way of keeping my pump connected during swimming, whether I was involved in workouts, swim meets or triathlons.

What I did was stow the pump between two racing suits, using a money belt as a holder. I use a Sun Dog brand money belt. It’s great for protecting the pump or the pump case (MiniMed pump). The two suits are almost a must to reduce the chafing caused by wearing the money belt next to the skin. For a female swimmer, a one-piece swimsuit provides the outer covering. In my case, two racing suits work well and do not cause a decrease in racing speed (at least in my experience).

A second problem is the infusion set. The adhesive on the infusion set peels away when I swim any distance. The reason for this is the turbulent flow of water across the edge of the infusion tape. The flow lifts the edges, and the entire infusion set from the site in my abdomen (including infusion tube) then comes out. There are dozens of different tapes that could be used to hold the set in place. I have tried a variety of these tapes, but all of them peeled away. A solution I have found is wearing a very light wet suit t-shirt (e.g., Aeroskin) which works extremely well.

I also have extraordinarily sensitive skin and many of the different brands of tape caused a severe rash except one type of tape I now use called Mefix, manufactured by SCA Molnlycke Ltd.

So, I first wear a racing suit then the money belt with the tubing rolled up inside. I then wear the wet suit t-shirt and another racing suit over that. I find with these few simple adjustments I can now benefit from my pump 24 hours a day whether I’m swimming for fun or for competition.

(Al Lewis recently placed first in two events and third in one other in the individual Masters Swimming events (age group 60-64) and a placed first and second in two relay events. Professor Lewis works off the coast of British Columbia with his students and is currently working on a NASA/Canadian Space Agency Shuttle experiment.)

This article was reprinted with permission from the International Diabetes Athletic Association’s newsletter. To contact the IDAA call (800) 898-4322.

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