May 9, 2012

Triathlon Nutrition: How Gluten Sensitivity Whacks Race Performance

By Mir Zacharias

You’re facing another demanding day of work, training, and a bit of family fun time, too.  And you wonder, “Will I have enough energy to take it all on or am I going to find myself dragging through the day again?”

Most people don’t connect the dots between fatigue and gluten sensitivity.  This is largely because your symptoms may not show up for 2 hours to a couple of days after consuming it!  This is different from celiac disease which is a genetic condition that immediately triggers a nasty physical reaction if you eat even a smidgen of gluten.

While only one in 133 people have celiac disease, some estimate that 30 – 40% of the population has some form of gluten sensitivity that creates many of the same symptoms:  fatigue, headaches, and joint pain topping the list.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat (including kamut and spelt), barley, rye, malts and triticale. Oats, by the way, do not contain gluten on their own; the issue with oats involves potential cross-contamination with other grains in the milling process.  In addition to the obvious foods (bread, pizza, pastry and pasta), gluten is also widely used as a flavoring, stabilizing or thickening agent in almost all processed foods and commonly shows up as “dextrin” on food labels.

ITU gold-medalist Timothy O’Donnell is the poster child for undiagnosed gluten sensitivity.  With his performance faltering, he learned that his inability to digest gluten was shutting down his digestive tract, resulting in low energy and sabotaging his races.  Since going gluten-free, O’Donnell finished 1st place in two 70.3 races, San Juan and Galveston, so far this year.

Here’s how gluten can wreak havoc on your body and in your performance:

1. It causes leakage. When the stomach can’t handle gluten, it becomes inflamed; an inflamed gut lining becomes more permeable or “leaky.” A leaky gut allows energy-producing nutrients to pass out of the stomach and into the bloodstream in a form that cannot be absorbed by the body (vs. proceeding through the intestines and broken down into a usable form).  When minerals and vitamins are not taken up, energy drops.   Additionally, these unrecognized food proteins in the blood stream can make you feel lousy:  think gas, bloating, and brain fog.

2.  It adds insult to injuries. Foods that contain gluten also have high levels of the compound arachidonic acid which in large amounts has the ability to increase inflammation of the joints and aggravate pain. Even the Arthritis Foundation recommends a gluten-free diet to support people who suffer from ongoing pain due to inflammation.  If chronic joint or tendon pain is impacting your ability to train, gluten may be the culprit.

3.  It makes you fat. Many think that our obesity epidemic is a result of a slovenly, TV-addicted lifestyle and while some of that may be true there are many people who follow the USDA’s “healthy” dietary guidelines, exercise an hour a day and STILL gain weight.  What’s up with that?  It all comes down to our love affair with foods that cause our insulin levels to stay stuck on high.  High insulin levels make us STORE fat, especially around the belly, and one big enemy behind chronically high insulin levels is wheat.  Want proof?  The glycemic index, which measures blood sugar level increases, of whole wheat bread is 72, while plain table sugar is 59.  Kidney beans come in at 51, grapefruit is 25, and salmon and walnuts have zero effect on blood sugar.  In fact, few foods have as high a GI as foods made from wheat!  And you already know how excess weight can slow performance.

So here’s what you should do:

1.    If you suspect that you have gluten issues talk to your healthcare practitioner and ask to be tested.  You may encounter resistance, so stand your ground if this is something you want to do.  In addition to blood work, Timothy O’Donnell used a test (one I’ve used as well) to discover his gluten issue called the Metametrix GI Effects Complete Profile.  Ask your doctor about this.

2.    If you don’t want to hassle with tests and doctors, perform an elimination diet on yourself.  Go completely gluten-free for 3 weeks and monitor things like energy, GI distress, headaches, weight shifts, and pain.  If you see no improvement, then return to eating gluten it if you wish.  If you aren’t sure if you feel any better, eat gluten after your 3-week hiatus for several meals in a row and THEN see how you feel.  Sometimes it’s the reintroduction that is an even more powerful indicator.

3.    If you see improvement after 3 weeks clean, then kick the gluten habit.  This doesn’t mean you should switch to eating large volumes of processed foods made from non-gluten grains!  An occasional gluten-free treat is fine, but better carb choices are those that look most like nature herself:  sweet potatoes, legumes, brown rice, fruits, and of course, vegetables.  There are plenty of healthy alternatives out there; it’s just about building new habits.

Once you remove gluten from your diet due to sensitivity issues, eating even a small amount of it will quickly remind you why you stopped eating gluten in the first place.  That alone, over time, will keep you on the straight and narrow.

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