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7 Real-Life Struggles as a Gluten-Intolerant Runner

Stephanie Bruce gives a candid account of what it's like being a runner with celiac disease.

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Elite runner Stephanie Bruce has always been transparent about her food allergies and how they’ve played a part in her training. Being a runner with celiac disease—which means fueling on a gluten-free diet—hasn’t always been easy. In fact, it’s part of why she, along with fellow athletes Lauren Fleshman and Jesse Thomas, launched their sports nutrition brand, Picky Bars, over a decade ago.

Celiac is an often misunderstood autoimmune disease, sometimes even falsely perpetuated as a fad. We’re breaking down the myths that runners should be aware of when it comes to having celiac disease.

What Is Celiac Disease, Exactly?

“Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that affects the lining of your small intestine, causing inflammation, digestive distress, a decreased ability to absorb certain nutrients, and a propensity to develop other serious diseases,” says Dr. Vikki Petersen, certified clinical nutritionist.

People with celiac disease have to avoid gluten, a mix of two proteins found in grains (wheat, rye, barley), for their entire life. It is not the same as a wheat allergy. While wheat allergies are actually very rare, says Dr. Petersen, celiac disease affects one percent of the population.

Being mindful of cross-contamination is crucial to avoid going into GI distress. “A misconception is that a ‘bite’ or ‘sip’ of something containing gluten couldn’t possibly bother someone suffering from celiac disease. The fact is that the need to avoid gluten is not quantitative, but rather qualitative, meaning that a crumb of a bread crumb on a salad is enough to create very ill effects on someone with the disease,” says Dr. Petersen.

Avoiding gluten is certainly not a fad in these cases. “Unfortunately, unhandled celiac disease (meaning the individual is not avoiding gluten completely) can lead to cancer (lymphoma), liver disease, thyroid disease, miscarriages, neurological diseases, and more. Symptoms and long-term manifestations go far beyond an upset stomach,” she says.

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7 Real-Life Struggles for Runners with Celiac

Bruce shared with us the realities of living—and running—with this disease in a long-running blog she used to write. We’ve resurfaced them here.

1. Avoiding the pre-race pasta feeds.

“I get it. Tradition says it’s the night before a race, so stuff your face with some pasta. This has led races to host pasta feeds, and your friends and teammates to make reservations at the Spaghetti Factory. Most nights before races I’m either dining solo at the local Thai place, the Whole Foods hot bar or, on some occasions, cooking with my hot plate in the hotel room. Glamorous, I know.”

2. Say good bye to PB&Js.

“One of the easiest snacks to make and travel with is the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Have you ever made a PB&J with gluten-free bread and eaten it hours later? I’ll save you the agony—it’s awful. GF bread does not have the moistness and texture to make it tasty minutes, let alone hours, after it’s made. You either need a microwave or toaster on hand to heat it up, or consume immediately. This convenient and staple snack for runners is a luxury that celiacs often miss out on.”

3. Don’t count on hotel breakfasts.

“Hotel continental breakfasts have disaster written all over them. Whenever we’re booking hotels, whether for race travel or vacation, seeing that breakfast is included is always a nice perk—unless you have celiac disease. Most continental spreads provide danishes, muffins, cereals, bagels, croissants, and the best ones have DIY waffle machines. And by best, I mean worst for someone with a gluten allergy.”

4. Your diet will confuse people.

“I love my dear friends, but when the carb question comes out post-run you can’t help but cringe inside. There are hundreds of carbohydrate options out there—you just can’t eat the ‘traditional’ ones runners often reference. Instead of a sandwich, I throw my meat and veggies over rice or corn tortillas. I swap out that pasta bowl for sweet potatoes or potatoes. Hug your friends and say ‘Thanks for the concern, I got this.'”

5. Dining out with friends is a challenge.

“This is especially true when it comes to post-run brunches, training camps, and race gatherings. Having celiac disease is not the worst disease in the world, as there are far worse conditions and illnesses to deal with, but it truthfully can make you feel like an outsider and social pariah when planning. You either stuff your purse full of edible safe snacks and sneak them into your mouth in the midst of your friends buttering their rolls at the table, or stay home.”

6. You have to pay extra attention to your nutrition.

“One of the real struggles of being a runner with celiac is making sure your diet is well-rounded, and you’re getting in most of your vitamins and minerals from nutrient-dense foods. This can be challenging when an entire food group (or more, with my dairy and egg allergy) limits what you can eat. I have always made it a point to use iron, vitamin D, and calcium supplements no matter how ‘great’ I think my diet is. Training takes more of a toll on your body, so being celiac requires a little more attention to your nutritional intake.”

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7. Oh, the runs.

“This perhaps pertains more to the runners who don’t know they have the disease yet—so it is worth mentioning. Ever find yourself being that runner who makes your group stop 4-5 times during an hour run to duck into the woods? It’s not because you overloaded on your morning French press; it could be your gut telling you something is off, and you need to investigate. The ‘runs’ is one of the biggest inconveniences a runner with a food allergy struggles with. Don’t accept this just as a normal side effect of the sport; do some research on what you’ve eaten pre-run and what makes your stomach grumpy. If all else fails, pack toilet paper.”

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