There is no better feeling coming home from a hard day at work, throwing on your trainers and heading out onto the road with a spring in your step. But what if, 10 minutes into every run, you start to suffer gas, bloating, cramping or even diarrhoea? Not so much fun. Running and food intolerance don’t go well together. These intolerances can cause side effects that can ruin every session, making it hard to see any performance gains.
Food intolerance should not be confused with a food allergy – when you have an allergy your body’s immune system reacts abnormally to a food and the effects can be very serious. Intolerances happen because the body has difficulty digesting certain substances in food. Symptoms associated with a food intolerance are often dismissed as just nerves, poor food choice or dehydration. They shouldn’t be.
Identifying your intolerance, and not just dismissing it as something that happens occasionally, can help you perform better. The easiest place to start is by keeping a food diary. You should note down everything you eat during the day, over a four-week period. People with food intolerance can often tolerate small doses of the culprit food with little or no reaction, so be sure to also note down the quantity of the food you are eating. The diary must also include notes on your symptoms. Once you have identified foods that appear to exacerbate your symptoms, eliminate these foods from your diet for about one week to see if your symptoms improve. You could also speak to a nutritionist, who can carry out tests that will indicate what foods your body doesn’t like.
Lactose intolerance occurs when the body is unable to digest a type of sugar found in milk and dairy products – lactose. Symptoms include bloating, wind and diarrhoea. These symptoms can be easily confused with other intolerances, so just because you have them you shouldn’t ditch milk straight away. If you’re lactose intolerant, you are likely to be able to consume small amounts of lactose without any ill effects – for example, milk in tea. The severity of the reaction varies from person to person.
Limit your intake of foods and drinks containing lactose, such as milk and dairy products, but also be aware of products that contain these foods, such as bread and chocolate. To ensure you’re getting enough calcium in your diet, try including the following foods: soya or rice milk; soya yoghurt; baked beans; calcium-fortified foods, such as cereal and orange juice; tinned salmon; cooked spinach.
The most common issue for runners with lactose intolerance is identifying suitable breakfast options. Porridge made with soya or rice milk, omelettes, and smoothies made with frozen fruit, a banana and some soya or almond milk are popular alternatives to the traditional bowl of cereal with milk.
Be aware of sports nutrition products such as recovery drinks, bars and protein powders, as some of these contain lactose. Lactose-free whey proteins are available but alternatives include chia protein and soya protein.
Runners with wheat intolerance will often choose gluten-free products. However, these still contain part of the wheat that will cause symptoms such as stomach ache, bloated abdomen and headaches.
Foods to avoid are breads and baked goods such as cookies, biscuits, muffins and cakes, cereals, flour, pasta, processed meats and breaded foods. Rye, barley and oats are part of the wheat family and may also cause symptoms. Eating enough carbohydrate to support your training can be difficult. Choose from the following options, particularly when you’re looking to carbo-loading before a race: rice, chickpeas, beans and lentils, millet, buckwheat, quinoa, wheat-free pasta. To recover well from a hard training session it’s important to eat a balanced meal containing carbohydrate, protein and vegetables. Great examples include: smoked salmon with lemon and dill lentils; char grilled turkey with quinoa tabbouleh; chickpea and spinach curry; jerk chicken with rice and stir-fried vegetables.
With many food intolerances, you may be able slowly to reintroduce the offending items to your diet after a period of elimination. While you are excluding foods, be careful to avoid limiting your diet too much. When you’re training hard, this can restrict the types of nutrients your body requires. Search for specialist cookbooks or head for the ‘free-from’ section of your local major supermarket to broaden your options.
Written by Nick Anderson