Will Gluten-Free Make You Faster on the Bike?
We recently posted on IFE about whether being a vegetarian could improve performance, so with “gluten-free” being a huge buzzword these days, it’s only natural we’d want to look into whether forgoing gluten could help you, too. By now most people have heard that for a small percentage of the U.S. population, eliminating gluten from their diet can be a dramatic life-changer.
Sufferers of celiac disease (about 1 of every 133 Americans) are plagued by an autoimmune response caused by gluten, with symptoms ranging from upset stomach and diarrhea, to joint and abdominal pain, to full-body fatigue and even depression.
Now there’s a growing body of anecdotal evidence that gluten, a protein found in grains such as barley, wheat, and rye, and foods such as bread, pasta, and cereal, may also negatively effect athletic performance.
A recent Outside magazine article lays out this hypothesis, using the story of Dave Hahn, a famous mountaineer who nearly botched a summit attempt of Mount Everest in 1999 because of what turned out to be the onset of celiac disease. Hahn has since given up gluten, and this year will attempt his 13th successful ascent of the world’s tallest mountain.
Former world champion mountain biker Brian Lopes is also a believer, saying flatly that after giving up gluten, he’s “5 to 10 percent faster.”
Lopes is not alone among pro cyclists. Christian Vande Velde claims his career-best finish at the Tour de France – fourth in 2008 – coincided with the embracing of a gluten-free diet. “I arrived in the mountains with more energy than I ever have had,” Vande Velde told VeloNews.com. “I was fresh mentally and physically.”
Now Vande Velde’s entire team has at least cut back on gluten. “When our guys ride, they’re tearing muscle fibers, and that creates inflammation in their bodies,” Garmin’s sport science director Robby Ketchell told Outside. “We need to get rid of that inflammation so they can ride strong the next day. The last thing we want is something that causes more inflammation.”
Need more proof? How about our own Innovation for Endurance contributor, Levi Leipheimer. He’s been laying off the gluten this year — and he just won the Tour of Switzerland, a victory he called the biggest of his career.
So what exactly does eliminating gluten from your diet entail? You’ll have to give up aforementioned staples such as bread, cereal, and pasta, and instead turn to oats, rice, vegetables, and fruit for sustenance. Other good choices are almond butter, beans, lentils, corn, and quinoa.
And most important, remember that being gluten-free isn’t for everyone. If you’re really curious, try it for a month and gauge the results of how you feel and how you perform. If there’s little change, go back to the bakery and buy some bread.
—Jason Sumner, Bicycling Reporter