Gluten Free Fitness

Gluten Free Athletes

Non Celiac Athletes Going Gluten Free: Is there a Performance Benefit? Part 1

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My Dad handed me a Men’s Journal magazine, saying “they talk about gluten free in here.” I looked at the front cover and sure enough, there it was at the top of the cover. “No More Wheat-the Surprising New Diet for Athletes.” My very sophisticated first response was “huhmph” or something along those lines. I am rarely at a loss for words, but I was caught without anything pithy to say.

Several months ago, a friend of mine had mentioned that the Garmin professional cycling team was going gluten free. (Prior to my last knee surgery I was a fairly avid cyclist-now I just can’t take the chance of crashing onto one of these very expensive knees.) The driving force behind this decision is Dr. Allen Lim. He now is working with Team Radio Shack (Lance Armstrong’s current team.) We’ll get back to the reasoning behind going gluten free in a bit. Let’s take a look at some athletes who have taken the gluten free route and their experiences.

Winning without wheat

The Men’s Journal article titled Winning Without Wheat discussed the Garmin’s team experience and results with going gluten free. It was noted that the athletes were gluten free during the racing season-not necessarily the off-season. During the season, the riders reported performance improvement along with reduced digestive issues. (I found it interesting that the article did not mention if the athletes had been tested for celiac disease, or if any of them chose to continue eating gluten free off season.) It was not reported if the performance improvements were perceived, or if there had been specific testing parameters on a “regular” versus gluten free diet.

The word on wheat

An article in Bicycling magazine titled The Word on Wheat discussed the idea of voluntarily going gluten free, and the potential pitfalls of a gluten free diet. (which I addressed in the nutrient deficiencies in the gluten free diet post and refers you to Peter Bronksi’s well written review) They also mention celiac disease versus non celiac gluten intolerance.

A pro triathlete named Desiree Flicker is quoted as saying:

It does end up being a lot healthier because it forces you to stay away from overly processed foods.

Flicker was diagnosed with celiac disease at age 29 after dealing with gastrointestinal issues for almost 10 years. She noted a performance improvement after going gluten free. (To me this is a “well, duh” moment-of course a celiac will have improved performance on a gluten free diet-but we’ll get to that.)

Gluten free to ease digestion

The rationale presented behind originally moving the Garmin team to gluten free is basically to ease digestion. There are multiple fragments of gluten that can cause adverse reactions, even without specific wheat allergy or celiac disease.

The spectrum of non celiac gluten intolerance is an area that seems to be expanding rapidly. Improved digestion leads to improved absorption of nutrients, which can then translate into improved performance.

Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation

Keep in mind that while this can be a correlation, it’s not necessarily a causation without proof. In other words, it looks like a gluten free diet may be associated with improved performance, but without specific controlled variables we cannot say that a gluten free diet caused the improvement in performance.

I was unable to find any research studies that examined the effects of a gluten free diet and performance. It does appear that there is quite a bit of anecdotal evidence where people have experienced improved performance.

Based on these anecdotes, it appears that there is potential for improved performance in athletes to eat a gluten free diet even if they are not diagnosed with wheat allergy or celiac disease.

In Part 2 of this article we will take a look at why a gluten free diet may correlate with an improvement in performance.

Stay tuned! If you have experienced improved performance with eating gluten free speak up! Leave a comment below!

Stephanie Diamond: Gluten Free Athlete Profile

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Stephanie has had some very cool adventures in life and in fitness!

Stephanie and her husband-that's the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro in the background!

Stephanie and her husband-that’s the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro in the background!

Stephanie Diamond, age 33

Hometown

I grew up in Hope Valley, Rhode Island. I currently live in Bujumbura, Burundi, Central Africa.

Sports and accomplishments

Running and hiking. I trekked to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in February 2009.

Celiac trigger

I was under a lot of stress at my job and I’d lost nearly 10 pounds in a short amount of time. I was already pretty thin, so losing weight was a weird thing for me. Plus I was moody and just not feeling great. Being aware of the symptoms, it didn’t take me long to make the connection to celiac disease. I also quit the job. I was diagnosed in the summer of 2003. A couple years earlier, my brother had been very ill; it took a year for him to be diagnosed with celiac disease. I was able to see the symptoms in myself and get tested and get on the gluten-free diet before I got as sick as he did.

Training

I’m building my base for half marathon training. I run 3 to 5 miles several times a week. On my off days I play tennis, go hiking, or do yoga, depending on my level of energy. I never really got into strength training, even when I had to do it for my high school and college teams. When I was training for Kilimanjaro I weighted a pack to about 20 pounds and walked up and down the mountain that I live on. Three miles, three times a week. It really helped prepare me for wearing the pack on the trek.

Nutritional philosophy

I become a monster when I have an empty stomach so I graze most of the day. I listen to my body and eat what it tells me to. Sometimes that’s a lot of fruits and veggies, sometimes it’s a big chunk of meat. I do try to balance things. But I love ice cream, cheese, and other heavy, creamy foods. I run so I can eat them.

I love the grass-fed beef and other meats here in Burundi. I never thought I would eat goat, but it’s delicious! We get good fresh milk and lots of fresh fruits and veggies. Many of the local traditional foods are gluten-free and I’ve had fun trying them. Lots of rice and cassava and beans. They brew beer from banana and millet. It’s a yummy treat.

When trekking, a good portion of my weight is Lara Bars and Kind Bars. They are convenient for snacking on throughout the day. I also bring gluten-free instant hot cereal for breakfasts. I love to start a day on the trail with a hot breakfast.

Pre/post workout food

Pre workout I eat very little. Before tennis or hiking I’ll usually have a bowl of gluten-free granola mixed with some flax cereal because I need to be sustained for a couple hours.

On running days I’m up and out so early to beat the heat that my stomach’s not awake yet. I usually have a little water and sometimes half a Lara Bar. I rely on having had a big healthy dinner the night before–lean meat with veggies, rice and beans, or quinoa pasta.
Post workout I love toast with peanut butter and a tropical fruit smoothie. (Mango and pineapple are always in season here. I love it!) I brought my breadmaker, so if I get 3 hours of uninterrupted electricity I can make my own gluten-free bread. There’s no Whole Foods to run out to for a loaf if I’m really craving it.

Sports supplements

I take a multivitamin with my snack after a hard workout. I started doing that on the Kilimanjaro trek. Every afternoon when we got to camp we had a snack of popcorn and tea. I took a vitamin and some ibuprofen. Luckily I don’t need the ibuprofen on a daily basis. But it helped on the mountain.

Upcoming plans

I’m looking for a half marathon to do the next time I’m back in the States, which will hopefully be this winter. I haven’t run one since before my celiac diagnosis. I’d also like to spend a week or two on the Appalachian Trail next summer. I wish I had time to try the whole thing!

Advice for other gluten free athletes

Regardless of whether you’re gluten-free or not, you have to find the foods that work for you. It takes time and dedication, but anyone who wants to be healthy has to do it.

Final notes

I’m just a regular person who likes to spend time outdoors.

I was a picky eater before my diagnosis, and I was scared my choice of foods would be all but demolished. But the gluten-free diet pushed me out of my comfort zone and I’ve tried so many new, delicious foods that I could have been eating all along.

Getting to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro on that last day was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s mentally and physically draining. But now I feel like I can do anything. It’s a little corny, but it’s true. I think of it whenever a challenge comes my way.

As you can see, Stephanie has some unique and very interesting stories. Please check her out:

Life in Africa blog: http://whereintheworld-stephanie.blogspot.com/

Gluten-free blog: http://stephaniefood.blogspot.com/

Twitter ID: @StephanieSD

Thanks so much for sharing your story Stephanie! I’m ready to go out and hike the closest mountain! (Here in South Florida that would be the bridge over the Intracoastal.) OK-maybe not, but all of these athletes have been truly inspiring.

Kelly Baker: Gluten Free Athlete Profile

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I first ran into Kelly on a bodybuilding/fitness message board. She keeps a journal there, and with gluten free in the title-I was intrigued. Kelly always keeps a positive outlook and has encouraging words for others. Here she is!

Kelly Baker

Kelly Baker

Kelly Baker

Age 31, resides in Columbus Ohio.

National Physique Committee Figure Competitor, Women’s Tri-Fitness Competitor

I was diagnosed July 21, 2008, and oddly enough it was an attempt at finding the best diet for my body. A training partner had undergone the test, received a Celiac diagnosis, and had had the most staggering transformation I’d ever seen. I figured it was worth a shot as I had thought myself lactose intolerant for years.

I didn’t have a true “trigger” so much as I was becoming more symptomatic over time. I’ve probably always been like this.

Training Program

I use the P/RR/S (Power, Rep. Range, Shock) system, combined with plyometrics, and various forms of cardio. I try to be as sports-specific as possible depending on what I’m competing in. My husband and I are looking to do some serious cycling next summer, so I will be more cycling focused between NPC shows.

Nutritional philosophy

I have other major intolerance’s in addition to Celiac Disease in the forms of soy, dairy, eggs, and most nuts and seeds. I stick with lean protein sources and lots of vegetables, fruit, and gluten-free grains. I avoid processed foods as much as absolutely possible. The more ingredients it has the less I trust it.

For pre and post workout nutrition, I have chicken and a rice cake for both. Sometimes I eat Steel Cut oats in place of the rice cake.

Favorite sports supplements

The following from ALR Industries; Chain’d Out, T-X, Zero-Stim, Hyperdrive 3.0, ProAnabol, WTF Pump’d, Primed Ultra, Poison, Comatose, and Lean Dreams. For cycling related power-ups GU Chomps work very well.

(Editor note:I have contacted ALRI in an attempt to obtain a listing of their gluten free products and have not yet received a response. Kelly notes she has never has an issue with their products.)

Upcoming competitions/training plans

I competed in my second Figure show on October 3rd, which will be followed by some medical testing to determine the extent of an injury to my knee. I plan to compete next March in Figure, take most of the summer to do some serious cycling (75-100 mile rides) and compete in two more Figure shows in October 2010.

Advice for other gluten free athletes

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. In some ways it is harder for us to function nutritionally, but in a lot more ways it is easier. We must give our systems quality fuel, and we think about what goes “in” much more than a normal person would. For anyone competing in Bodybuilding or Figure it makes the diet a lot easier. Our diets are cleaner to begin with which means less rebound between shows so returning to show conditioning is easier for us to do.

Final notes to share

July 21, 2008 I got my life back. I’d always been fatigued no matter how much I slept, suffered from low blood sugar crashes several times a day, and couldn’t make the gains I was working so hard to make. That day, I found out that 90% of my diet, pristine by conventional nutrition standards, was toxic to my system.

Once my diet changed the fatigue drained away, the hypoglycemic incidents stopped, and I no longer agonized over the way I’d react to anything that went in my mouth. Discoering I was a Celiac along with my other intolerances was freeing. For nearly 30 years, I had no idea what it was like to actually feel good. and I would not trade any of this for the world.

Thanks for sharing Kelly-best wishes with your knee and your future plans!

Editor note: Read this article about how celiac can help improve you awareness of proper nutrition and thus your diet.