Can a gluten-free diet benefit your cycling?

July 23, 2019 4 min read

Can a gluten-free diet benefit your cycling?

If you currently on a gluten-free diet or are thinking of changing your diet to exclude certain foods and boost your health and cycling performance, you are not alone. 

A University of Colorado survey in 2012 asked 300 endurance cyclists what special diet they had undertaken to enhance performance. The most popular answer was gluten free. Some pro teams have also declared themselves gluten free as part of their ride practice. 

It’s not just cyclists taking to a gluten free range of eating, most people believe that going gluten free is beneficial to their health. 

The issue is that many people are making these dietary changes without consulting their doctor, sports specialist or nutritionist. Making harsh and sudden changes to your diet is stressful to your body so careful consideration needs to be taken into account before you take the plunge. 

It’s absolutely certain that some people live and feel better when they cut gluten products out of their diet. However, for everyone else, going without all gluten can be damaging as your body misses out on important nutrients needed not only for fuel, but also for the absorption of other minerals and vitamins in other food. Gluten-free diets are typically low in fibre, B vitamins, iron and zinc. Not only that but vitamin B absorbency is also diminished so you can’t easily extract it from other foods and supplements.   

Fad diets are always in fashion, everyone looking for that shortcut that will solve all their troubles, glowing skin, flat tummy, toned arms, high performance. What’s been proven time and time again is that what works wonders for one person can be a complete nightmare for others. There is no one approach to food and food restrictions that works for everyone. 

First thing to consider is what type of gluten foods are you eating.

Are you cutting back on simple carbs with high sugar value, like donuts, croissants, biscuits cakes and pastries? Then, yes you are going to feel better, have more energy and see performance results. Cutting these nasties back or out of your diet helps your body cleaning system work better, which means when you burn energy on the bike, it’s clean energy that won’t leave you bloated or giddy from a toxic sugar rush. 

What type of non-gluten foods are you eating?

Does being gluten free encourage you to eat more fruits vegetables and legumes? If you are adding more carb variety with porridge, brown rice, lentils, quinoa and potatoes that’s great news and yes, you will be feeling better and performing well with this type of diet. No matter if you are gluten free or not these should be included in your meal rotation as part of a healthy balance and variety rich life plan. 

Figure out what is causing you trouble

If you have stomach issues like bloating and inflammation or you feel foggy or lethargic after eating find patterns that link these reactions directly to gluten. Remember, you are looking for reactions to good gluten foods, not the sugary kind. Monitor how you feel after eating or keep a food health diary where you record your meal and how you feel after eating. 

Do you have coeliac disease?

Approximately one in 100 people have coeliac disease, an autoimmune condition where the body will attack the small intestine when gluten is ingested. The overactive immune response means that the lining of the small intestine becomes damaged, and over time food is not absorbed properly.

Symptoms include:

  • Bloating
  • Diarrhoea
  • Weight loss
  • Anaemia
  • Fatigue

While it sounds like it’s a cut and dry case, many people don’t know they have coeliac and go through life feeling bloated and uncomfortable.

In the case of coeliac disease diagnosis, you should avoid all gluten-based products. 

Carb loading and cycling

With carbohydrates being such a big part of cycling training, gluten (in some cases large amounts of gluten) comes part and parcel with the cycling gig. Also part and parcel of cycling is a feeling of a bloated stomach. When competing at a recreational level, almost 70 per cent of endurance athletes reported having digestion difficulties. 

Are the two directly related? Not necessarily. 

One issue could be that carb loading is not well balanced with fruits and vegetables, too many carbs and nothing else isn’t going to sit well in your stomach. If you have a big bowl of spaghetti with tomato sauce, your body doesn’t have much support to digest, especially if you are eating close to bedtime or close to your ride start. Make sure your plate has lots of leafy greens like kale, lettuce and cucumber, which help with digestion and stomach acid balance. 

Other foods cause reactions too

FODMAP foods can cause gas, stomach pain and bloating. Some sugars (FODMAPS) are poorly digested and may be present in common foods like tomatoes, onions and garlic. They are also present in grains like wheat and barley. Because of this, some people assume they can’t have gluten, but actually, need to follow a FODMAP diet to feel great and achieve their best results. Before changing your diet speak to a GP or dietician. 

Exercise can make you bloated

Intense exercise shifts blood flow away from the digestive system to work and sustain the muscles. This can cause bloating, diarrhoea or inflammation in any athlete, let alone cyclists who are hunched over the handlebars a little awkwardly. 

As yet there is no evidence

Researchers investigating the relationship between cycling, inflammation and digestion were not able to see any difference in digestive health or performance between test subjects who had gluten and those who did not. 

If you have doubts about your stomach health get a check-up and, if necessary, test to determine what the food triggers are. 

For most people, great health and performance means eating a well-balanced diet that includes as many natural, healthy foods as possible in a range of colours and types to give your body the full spectrum of nutrients it needs to get through a day and power you on the bike. 

Fuelling your body well so you can spend more time on the bike? That’s freedom!

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