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The Gluten Free Runner

As featured in this month edition of Running Fitness magazine

In athletes, gluten free diets are growing in popularity with many self-diagnosing and claiming “gluten sensitivity”. Individuals that suffer symptoms such as diarrhoea and abdominal bloating find eliminating gluten eradicates these symptoms. Some athletes may think a gluten free diet may provide health benefits or help improve performance. In reality, eliminating gluten unnecessarily may leave the athlete with more problems, but more importantly, if an athlete does suffer from gastro intestinal (GI)problems, there is a danger that eliminating gluten without medical investigation could leave them with a missed diagnosis of coeliac disease, the country’s most undiagnosed condition.

Coeliac disease is a life-long, autoimmune condition and it affects 1 in 100 people. It is a reaction of the immune system to the protein gluten. The body reacts causing damage to the lining of the intestines which in turn cause malabsorption of nutrients and with many diarrhoea. Many individuals can present with bloating, pain, weight loss, fatigue, hair loss or anaemia but symptoms vary between individuals. Some sufferers can be symptomless and only receive a diagnosis by chance or by routine blood tests. It is treated by complete removal of gluten from the diet. If appropriate support has been given from a Dietitian and the gluten free diet is adhered to, symptoms will be controlled, running performance should improve and most importantly long term consequences such as osteoporosis and anaemia, avoided. If an individual has self-diagnosed and has eliminated gluten without medical support, they are at risk of suffering from a number of deficiencies such as iron, calcium and some B vitamins. Hence, there are many nutritional issues to consider when gluten free and even more so if you are an athlete. Running puts stress on the body even without a condition such as coeliac. Being a gluten free runner is a challenge and careful dietary planning is vital to ensure you still achieve optimal performance.

Where is gluten found?

Gluten is found in wheat, barley and rye and these grains make up carbohydrate rich foods such as pasta, bread, flour and cereals. If avoiding gluten, habitual reading of food labels is vital to completely exclude it from the diet and a close eye must be kept on processed foods and ready meals. Even sauces, stock cubes and condiments may have gluten in and as a consequence lead you doubled up in pain and another day hanging up your trainers. Attention to detail is the key and even ensuring you are not sharing a toaster where normal bread has been toasted and using separate knives and chopping boards to avoid cross contamination it vital be completely gluten free (full list of foods to avoid can be found

How can a GF runner fuel their runs?

So what can you eat as an athlete to fuel your runs? Whether elite or club level runner, carbohydrate fuel’s performance and this is the main challenge for the gluten free runner. The majority of the carbohydrate we consume as athletes is derived from gluten containing grains found in pasta, cereal and bread. Excluding such foods from the diet could lead to anxiety about correct fuelling. Rightly so, as if carbohydrate levels are suboptimal, a drop in performance could be seen as a result of higher fatigue levels, alterations in blood sugar levels and inability to recover after an event.

We are witnessing an increasing trend of people that aren’t Coeliac’s going gluten free. The supermarket chains are cashing in on this trend and as a result of this there is more choice than ever of gluten free products in our supermarkets. However, it must be noted these products can be pricey. With a little bit of planning, there are naturally carbohydrate rich foods that will adequately power your runs such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, lentils and quinoa. These will fuel you muscles in the same way as gluten containing alternatives. Being gluten free you can eat many naturally occurring foods such as meat, fish, fruit and vegetables in abundance without worrying about their affects and contributing positively to an energy filled, balanced diet for performance.

Travelling and eating out

Eating at home can be easily planned but as an athlete, traveling to races is common practice therefore planning ahead it vital. Carry gluten free snacks such as dried fruit and nuts as emergencies and be prepared to discuss dietary requirements with restaurant staff. It may mean calling ahead to the restaurant to find out what they have on offer, or communicating with the waiter on arrival. It is imperative that the importance of avoiding cross contamination such as chips not being cooked in the same oil as breaded fish is highlighted. Eating out will always be a risk, here is a description of how is can ruin a race from a runner with coeliac disease “Before the Edinburgh half Marathon 3 weeks ago I went to Pizza Express and ordered a gluten free Pizza, they were so busy I don’t know if they mixed pizzas up , as the next day I had awful abdominal cramps and diarrhoea and had to stop to go the toilet during the race” To avoid this situation some athletes travel with their own gluten free pasta and request it to be cooked in fresh water, but this may not be tolerated by all restaurants! Best tip is think ahead and plan for potential problems.

GI problems are very complex and can be hard to manage, especially alone. It is vital, that individuals do not self-diagnose and sporadic exclusion of gluten from the diet does not have any scientific backing proving benefit to performance for athletes that are not confirmed coeliac. If an athlete is diagnosed with coeliac disease, with the right support from a Sports Dietitian, eating gluten free and achieving full running potential is possible. Emphasize natural foods that are gluten free, become a committed label reader and in time, gluten free will become second nature and all concentration can return to achieving that personal best.

Here are some basic carbohydrate rich, gluten free meal ideas:

Breakfast ideas

Fruit smoothie with Greek yogurt, scrambled egg, gluten free bread, certified gluten free muesli/ granola/oats

Lunch ideas

Jacket potato (or sweet) with cottage cheese/tuna with salad, gluten free bread sandwich, omelette with added vegetables, Quinoa & chicken salad with roasted vegetables, homemade soup, gluten free crackers & hummus.

Dinner ideas

Any meat/fish (not breaded) with potatoes/rice/quinoa & vegetables, prawn stir fry with rice noodles (no shop bought sauces), lean mince chilli with rice.

Snacks ideas

dried fruit, nuts, homemade popcorn, rice cakes with peanut butter & banana, fruit, crudities and hummus, yogurt, apple & cheese.

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