Friday, May 20, 2016

Gluten Intolerance: An Endurance Athlete's Quest for Health and Performance

I have been on a lifetime long search for race day nutrition that my sensitive stomach would allow me to eat. Most of my triathlons and road races of any distance in the past 6-8 years resulted in stomach pains/cramps that I had attributed to two things over the years 1) it was just a part of the discomforts of racing that go along with endurance sports, and 2) not being able to find the right race day nutrition that agreed with my stomach. On shorter races I could push through it but on longer races I had become less and less willing to accept that pain as part of my race and would just simply slow down to alleviate the discomfort.
I had given some thought to a general sensitivity like gluten or dairy being my downfall, and had even experimented some with my race day meals and nutrition, but without successful results. In a somewhat random occurrence I confirmed that I do have an intolerance to gluten by doing some longer term experimentation to try and alleviate some other sinus inflammation I had been dealing with in which I experienced prolonged sinusitis throughout the winter months. In February 2015 I made a concerted effort to cut dairy and gluten out of my diet as two known troublemakers for a portion of the population. I saw an improvement to my sinuses in just a few short days and eventually narrowed it down to gluten being the biggest trouble maker. Granted this was not easy for a Kansas boy who grew up on wheat pasta and bread at almost every meal. Our home is literally surrounded by wheat (pic above just out our back door). But the benefits have, by far, out weighed the costs of change.
The bonus came once I started getting back into higher intensity training, and eventually my 2015 racing season, as I appeared to be having less stomach pain associated with race efforts. This established a new pain free baseline that I didn’t know existed for me and has led to the fairly simple diet plan of “if it makes you feel bad…don’t eat it!” The list has grown to include other items that my sensitive stomach just doesn’t tolerate, or perhaps as I said, was just willing to live with the discomforts as “normal.”
I’m not sure of the relevance of this on a greater population scale and the many who, like me, have eliminated gluten from their diet without evidence of an allergy or positive blood work / diagnosis, etc. I would be a firm believer that there are a percentage of people who fall into this category. Although it may be somewhat tolerable to live with, you may not be performing at your best be it as an athlete or even more generally as a thriving and healthy human being. I have since found a book by Pip Taylor, The Athlete's Fix, that outlines almost exactly what I went through during this discovery process. I would encourage you to read it as well if something I have said hit home with you. I believe what makes endurance athletes unique is their ability to continue the quest for the goal despite the pain and discomforts associated with accomplishing that goal. However, you may be accepting more than just the burning of your muscles as "normal" parts of the sport. You may find yourself with a new baseline level of comfort you didn’t know could exist.
It has now been over a year since I adjusted my diet to gluten free and I have not only avoided my usual winter of sinus attacks but I haven't been sick once in the last 15 months. This is by far the most significant part for my general health and well-being that goes beyond the improved performance gains I have also noticed. I have also talked with others who have experienced similar life-changing effects, but also those who did not notice any changes at all.
I think what we know about nutrition effects at an individual level is still very much in it's infancy and we must become our own experiment in order to determine what our body truly needs. We must also realize what was true for our body five years ago may not be how our body continues to respond as it ages and changes. Good luck on your own self experimentation and quest for a healthier you.