Is a gluten-free diet good for runners? - Women's Running UK

Is a gluten-free diet good for runners?

Author: Women's Running Magazine

Read Time:   |  May 13, 2016

Gluten free diet

More and more athletes and professional sports people are going gluten free without any medical reason, from American marathon runner Ryan Hall to tennis champ Novak Djokovic. But why? Is there any evidence that it can actually support your performance? And could it even do harm to your training and effectiveness of your eating regime?

What is gluten and where is it found?

Gluten is the stretchy protein that is found in grains, especially in wheat. The majority of our gluten consumption comes from bread, pasta and baked goods, with the average UK woman eating one-and-a-half slices of bread per day. Cous cous and bulgar wheat are also made from wheat, and there are other grains which contain gluten, including rye, barley and a small amount in oats. You’ll also find gluten added to many different foods you wouldn’t expect, from ice cream to sweets and cooked meats.

pasta

Should runners go gluten free?

It’s not just athletes with coeliac disease who are taking gluten out of their diet, due to medical reasons. Coeliac disease is a chronic autoimmune disease, where the body starts attacking the lining of the gut when you eat gluten. However there are many non-coeliac athletes who cut out gluten, and report that they have far less gut issues when they run, and even say it enhances their performance.

Now, there’s no actual evidence that going gluten free leads to a better sports performance, but there is evidence of the potentially harmful affects that gluten can have in some people. For example, gluten can cause inflammation and irritation in the lining of the gut. Given that up to 90% of distance runners and triathletes suffer from some form of digestive discomfort during or after exercise – most commonly cramps, diarrhea and bloating – cutting out gluten may help this issue in some runners.

Side stitch

Other amateur and professional sports people also report they feel less brain fog, less muscle and joint aches, better sleep patterns, and more energy levels when they cut out gluten. Research confirms that gluten can cause inflammation and immune disturbances in other parts of the body outside of the gut, including an inflammatory effect in many different organs, including the heart, thyroid, joints, muscles and the brain.

But why is gluten suddenly becoming such a problem for so many people? Surely our ancestors have eaten gluten for thousands of years? The issue is the way our modern wheat has been grown and developed, with intense farming methods that have left us with a grain very high in gluten. Also bread manufacturers often add extra gluten to make it more spongy, and use less traditional methods of fermentation, which help to break down some of the gluten proteins in bread, making it previously more easy to digest. That’s why many people find they can eat artisan bread when they’re on holiday, but the bread they have at home causes bloating, wind and digestive problems.

Could there be any harm caused by going gluten free?

So when it comes to fuel for runners, a large part of your carbohydrate intake might be from gluten. However, there are many alternatives and it’s important to make sure that if you’re competing or have an endurance event, you supply your muscles with sufficient carbohydrates. Between races, look for naturally gluten-free foods that are slow releasing, such as sweet potato, brown rice and brown rice pasta, quinoa, gluten-free oats and gluten-free oat cakes. Then on days you’re competing, you might look for low-fibre carbs which are easier on your digestive system, including white gluten-free bread, gluten-free pasta, more refined porridge oats such as the instant oats, white rice and potatoes.

Do be aware that while there may be lots of gluten-free products available in the supermarkets, many of them are highly processed and not particularly healthy. Often they are higher in sugar and starch than their gluten equivalents, and often contain many processed and artificial ingredients. So opt for foods which are naturally gluten free such as rice, buckwheat, quinoa and sweet potato, to keep your diet as wholesome and natural as possible.

Woman with package pasta in shop

If you’re thinking of going gluten free, do think about whether you can manage a gluten-free diet. Cutting out a whole food group can be tricky, as you’ll need to be prepared and have foods on hand that you can eat. It’s important that your diet does not increase your stress load, as we know the damaging effect that stress can have on our health as well. So find a balance that works for you. Perhaps give it a try and go exclusively gluten free for a couple of weeks, and see if it has any health benefits for you and if it affects your performance. That’s what Djokovich’s coach advised and the rest, shall we say, is history, in terms of his success!

Catherine Jeans is a Nutritional Therapist for Healthspan, the UK’s largest direct supplement supplier. For more information and to browse its range of products, visit: www.healthspan.co.uk.

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