Cyclist Jade Wilcoxson Shifts Gears
Pedal power helps athlete ward off type 2 diabetes and become a champion
Jade Wilcoxson seems as if she were born on two wheels. The way the professional cyclist switches gears, hugs turns, and powers up and down hills, you would think she’d been racing her whole life. But it was a diagnosis of prediabetes that put her on the road toward good health and top-flight competition.
Wilcoxson, 35, of Talent, Ore., bumped into elevated blood sugar levels nine years ago at age 26. Though she’d been enjoying “a pretty healthy lifestyle,” she had a family history of type 2 diabetes. An annual checkup of her blood glucose levels showed she was on track to develop type 2 if she didn’t make some changes.
“At that point, I spent about a week being bummed out and feeling sorry for myself,” recalls Wilcoxson, who has a background as a physical therapist. But a phone call from her brother motivated her to take small steps to become more active. Nothing drastic at first, just a little more exercise for both of them, as he, too, had the same family history to contend with. Then the already-active siblings decided to set their sights high: a century ride, 100 miles each on bikes. They lacked long-distance cycling experience, training, and fancy equipment, but they did have the drive to tackle a big challenge.
“I had done some mountain biking before, but never at those distances,” Wilcoxson says. “I would go out on the weekends for maybe 10-mile mountain bike rides, but never a hundred miles. That’s six or seven hours. I had never done anything like that before.”
Hitting that 100-mile mark on a regular bicycle was enough to get Wilcoxson hooked. She bought a road bike (one with a light frame and super-thin tires) and began to enter races. As her times improved, so did her blood glucose levels. Her A1C now stands at 5.5 percent (below the prediabetes range of 5.7 to 6.4 percent). And a healthy hobby turned into a way to make a living. She received a contract to ride with the Optum Pro Cycling Presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies team. Now she gets paid to travel around the world and ride her bike—“that’s a lifestyle that’s tough to beat,” she says. Wilcoxson’s tough to beat, too: She won the U.S. National Women’s Road Race and three other national championships in 2013. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil may be next.
When training, Wilcoxson rides her bike 20 hours a week (about 60 miles a day!), practicing hills, sprints—whatever might be ahead in her next race. She trains 15 more hours a week by lifting weights, running, hiking, paddleboarding, or playing tennis. Wilcoxson needs to eat a professional athlete’s balanced diet, but with an eye toward her risk for type 2 diabetes, she’s careful about how many grams of carbohydrate she takes in. That can be a balancing act because on long rides Wilcoxson must consume fast-acting carb sources to fuel her body. She sometimes uses energy gel (22 to 24 grams of carbohydrate per serving) but prefers to make her own granola bars from whole foods.
She admits to indulging in treats sometimes. During a recent six-day race, Wilcoxson says she and her roommate kept a list of all the desserts they’d like to eat once they crossed the finish line. They had frozen yogurt and s’mores one evening, she says, but the next day she was back on her eating plan. “I know that I have very little self-control with that sort of thing, so I just have to get it out of the house as fast as possible,” she says with a laugh. “That’s important for everybody to realize. Even though I’m a professional athlete and I’m in really good shape, I still deal with the exact same cravings and struggle with the discipline to eat the right diet, on a daily basis.”
With sport as her job, Wilcoxson knows the importance of whole-body health. That’s what keeps her motivated when she’s on the road—that and the fact that cycling every day is pretty darn fun. And fun is the most important part of physical activity, she says. After all, a fun exercise is one you’ll stick with day in and day out. And while her risk for developing type 2 diabetes has decreased, it’s something that’s always on her mind. “Each person is in control of their future health,” she says. “As long as you realize that and take ownership of that, and empower yourself to make the right decisions, it does become easier.”
Get Into Gear for the ADA!
Put your pedal power to good use—become a Red Rider®! The American Diabetes Association’s Tour de Cure® gets people, including members of Jade Wilcoxson’s cycling team, on bikes for some great exercise and to raise money to Stop Diabetes®. Red Riders are those who ride with diabetes. Find your local ride at diabetes.org/tour.
Back in the Saddle
Want to take your cycling from around the block to road races? Jade Wilcoxson suggests first getting to know the folks at your local bike shop. They can help build a bike that fits your needs and budget. “Interaction with a local, knowledgeable professional is priceless,” she says. “They’ll allow you to try out different [products].” You can also meet other like-minded riders—and maybe join some group rides, too. Find your local store at bicycleshops.us.
Learn more about Jade Wilcoxson and her team at optumprocycling.com.