Gluten-Free Race Training

Kassia, Post-Marathon

A year after I went gluten free, I completed a marathon. I’ve never been much of an athlete, so the fact I even considered a marathon was a shock to me. What made me think it was possible was incredible change in my energy level. Where once I could barely drag myself out of bed, now I was rising early, full of energy.

Training for that marathon required many months of dedication. Getting up early during the week for my regular walks (I, after much consideration, realized I couldn’t run the distance, but I could walk, and to be honest, my walking pace at that point was on par with some runners!). Getting up early on Saturday mornings for my long walks; since some of my training took part during the hottest part of the summer, I knew I needed to get those long miles done before the sun started baking me.

I learned to appreciate the virtues of Gatorade. I’ll never love the stuff, but I do get why it’s so important. I proudly purchased a succession of shoes, discovering a pair generally only lasts about 500 miles. Seriously, did you know that?

Recently, as I trained for a half marathon and tried to figure the perfect timing for my next pair of shoes — they need a few weeks of wearing before race day — disaster struck. I injured my knee. At first, I thought it was a minor thing. Nothing was torn, nothing was broken.

But my recovery took months. During this time, I learned I am very, very bad at resting. I learned I have the patiences of a 5-year. And I learned my body is getting older, and older bodies take longer to heal. The day I walked to our local burrito stand and back, a walk of less than half a short block, and felt like I’d climbed Mt. Everest was a day of jubilation!

And a day of reckoning. I needed to get better and I needed to get back to training. So I’ve committed to a race far enough out that I’ll have plenty of time to make sure my knee is fully recovered and my pace is back on track. In fact, I’ve committed to multiple races — it turns out my exercise goals are largely dictated by my competitive spirit.

So how do I manage training and racing while remaining gluten free? Here are some of my methods:

  • Pay Attention to Your Body: Unless you’re already a prime athlete, you will spend many, many hours training for your race. As you train, pay attention to how your body reacts to specific foods, bars, and beverages. Learn how long in advance of a long run/walk you need to eat. Figure out what works best for you so there are no surprises on race day.
  • Carbo-Load Before the Race: Obviously, a gluten-free life doesn’t impact training for marathons…except maybe you’ll need to skip the pasta-filled carbo loading dinner the night before the race, going with your favorite alternative instead. Mine is sushi rice with lightly seared albacore or grilled salmon. Add some GF soy sauce if you like (I carry little single serve packets in my bag for this reason). Baked potatoes, gluten-free pasta, rice cakes with nut butters or other protein, or gluten-free breads like bagels are also helpful. Increase your carbs the week before your race; I promise you’ll work off the extra calories.
  • No New Foods: Eat tried and true foods before your race. For my marathon, I had the rice bowl (sans sauce) at The Yardhouse, something I’d many times before. Carbs, veggies, and some protein. It was perfect for keeping me nourished as I hit the streets, ready to rock my marathon. If you can’t bring or make your own meals before the race, look for a restaurant you know and trust.
  • Avoid Too Much Roughage: This means, particularly, raw veggies or whole grains (I prefer white rice for this reason), especially the night before your race or long run/walk. You know your body and how you digest foods, and you can plan accordingly. Also, based on my observations, the port-a-potty lines are always longer than you’d expect.
  • Hydrate. A Lot: While training, I carried a water bottle and a bottle of diluted Gatorade. Both the bottles were fairly compact, with curved bodies and straps that wrapped around my hands. I also carried a couple protein bars — I don’t usually eat in the morning, but some days, they helped! Other people like gels or gummy blocks, but I’m not crazy about those.
  • Take Advantage of Water Stations: When you’re racing, there are water stations every couple of miles, and many times there will be Gatorade or other drinks. Some stations will offer various gels and other quick-carb products. I personally avoid these for two reasons: 1) hello, asking for a full ingredient list mid-race!, and 2) I am wary of introducing any new food into my system mid-race.
  • Salt Is Your Friend: As you prep for your race, you’ll want to increase both water and salt intake. Not to the degree where you’re gorging on either, but small increases. Salt helps you retain water, but, of course, you’re also sweating out lots of sodium as you race.
  • Research the Route: Most events have the route posted, complete with water station information. They’ll also indicate what sorts of snacks and drinks will be made available, in addition to the water. My advice is to note this information, but do not count on having the ability to take advantage of these items. Sometimes, the stations run out of everything but water, sometimes the crowd is too much to easily access anything but water.
  • Invest in Good Equipment: Naturally, you want the best possible shoes — talk to the store staff about your goals so they can help guide you. You want shoes that work for you. Good socks are also essential. And decent sports bras. Walking or running distances wears on the body, and good support is essential.
  • Race Belts or Pockets: You’ll need a place to store your bars (I like Kind bars), your fruit (bananas seem to be a consensus favorite), gels, even extra sunscreen. I have a friend who carries her asthma inhaler in her belt. Stuffing stuff in a belt or pocket makes your life so much easier!
  • Plan for a Post-Race Snack: Lots of races have food galore waiting at the finish line. If I were to be conservative, I’d say 90% of those items have gluten. The rest often involves fruit that has been sitting out too long. I pack a bag for my husband to bring to the finish line — snacks, Gatorade, a dry shirt, even socks.
  • Post-Race Protein: After your race, you may be starving or you may be thinking you’ll never eat again (you will!). Still, get some protein into your system to help the recovering process. Yogurt is good. Cheese sticks are good. Nuts are good. And all of these are better than the potato chips I had after my last race…because I’d forgotten my yogurt at home. Ah, that salty, salty goodness was so perfect!
  • Have Fun: All that training? All that thinking about food (and, sorry, but we gluten-free types are always thinking about food)? All that worrying about your finish time? Totally forgotten as you line up with the rest of your fellow racers, ready to start. The energy, the excitement, the determination of every single person around you — that’s what all this about.

Tip of the Week

Even when I’m not carbo-loading, I keep rice cakes handy for snacks. For a late afternoon pick-me-up, I spread a bit of cheese or peanut butter on the rice cake and munch away! Remember: rice cakes go stale if not kept in an airtight container.

Menu of the Week

On the night before a long walk, I like to load up on protein and carbs. Grilling salmon is so easy, and a bit of your favorite curry paste adds lots of flavor (skip if it doesn’t do well with your system). Adding coconut milk to the rice amps up the flavor, and stir frying the veggies helps with roughage issues. The sauce gives you a little extra sodium and whole lot of flavor!

  • Grilled Salmon with Curry Paste
  • Coconut Rice
  • Thai Veggie Stir Fry (tofu, bell pepers, bok choy, with a sauce made from soy sauce, brown sugar or honey, rice vinegar, and lime juice)
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