My first bout of stomach issues began in college. I was running cross country for the University of Alabama and was so embarrassed about my frequent “pit stops” during our workouts. In the years after college, I began training for triathlons and was plagued with severe stomach pain after my track workouts. I often assumed the fetal position, staying curled up in a ball for an hour after my hardest runs before I could think about eating dinner. I tried eliminating lactose, had tests run for giardia and other parasites, and attempted to lower my stress levels in the event that I suffered from “stress gut.” When I was living in Boulder in 2003, I even had my own bathroom stall at the track that my coach at the time, Dave Scott, labeled the “Des Ficker Stall.” Charming! At this point, Dave suggested I completely eliminate wheat from my diet. As I looked at my diet, which consisted of various forms of carbohydrates such as cereals, toast, bagels, and pasta, this feat seemed nearly impossible. The experiment of eliminating wheat only lasted two short days and put me into what felt like near starvation, so I resumed my bagel diet and my visits to the “Des Ficker Stall” at the track.
After I moved to Austin in 2004, my gut problems seemed to be increasing. I was embarrassed to run with new friends because I always had to stop. I had skin rashes, was fatigued, and encountered problems in my longer races with fuel and “pit stops.” Something obviously needed to be changed, and so I visited with a nutritionist and a gastroenterology doctor who diagnosed me with celiac disease. I’d been told that, as an athlete, I needed to eat for fuel but little did I know I was eating things that were basically poisoning my gut. Within a few weeks of total elimination of gluten from my diet, my symptoms abated. I was completely relieved and went on to have the best races of my career.
While I was having success on the racecourse, I had some personal remorse: the loss of pizza nights. Oh, how I loved my Home Slice Pizza with its delicious thin crust and gooey cheese after a long hard run! I began buying cookbooks and experimenting with baking, using all sorts of flour combinations and figuring out ways to incorporate other grains that would give me the carbs I needed to sustain myself. I began to find that there are many options for eating healthfully without going “carb free” (shudder).
I have since seen a gluten-free diet become a fad. People use the diet as a way to avoid eating processed carbs, which I think is wonderful. However, there are so many products out there with “gluten free” status that are just as processed and unhealthy as the Pillsbury biscuits we all loved as kids…and maybe still do! There are several gluten-free brands that now have my loyalty, as they give me the nutrients I need without the added fats, oils, and refined sugars. I’ve incorporated gluten-free products and foods into a diet that’s also high in organic fruits and vegetables, fish, bison, eggs, and nuts without sacrificing taste. For example: I bake with Bona Dea gluten-free whole grain flour, and it gives the pumpkin bread recipe I love to make a much better consistency than I ever achieved with regular white flour.
We are so fortunate to be living in Austin where healthy, gluten-free eating is plentiful and easy. The places we frequent are Whole Foods, Galaxy Café, Zocalo, and the Snack Bar. When I crave a burger, I go to Hopdoddy for an organic buffalo burger on their delicious gluten-free buns. These folks are all very conscientious about keeping their menus stocked with items containing organic, sustainable, and local ingredients. You can't forget dessert out on the town and for that there is Lick. Yum!
Becoming gluten free has changed my race fuel as well. I have exchanged brown rice and either chicken or salmon for the pasta I used to eat the night before an event. Pre-dawn race morning, I have rice bread with almond butter and raw honey instead of a bagel. Outside of racing, I usually stick to what I do for my daily routine; I don’t “carbo load” as that has often made me feel like Jabba the Hutt on race day. However if the race is long (as in the case of a half or full Ironman-distance triathlon, on Friday before a Sunday race, I up my calories by about 20 percent. I also add in more carbs and protein while lowering my fiber intake by eating fewer fruits and vegetables. If I am preparing to run a marathon, I keep my same routine until the day before the run and then I have a larger breakfast and lunch with lower fiber intake and make sure I am hydrating properly. During the race, I take in either apple or vanilla Powerbar gels, which my sponsor provides. I’ve found this fueling formula has worked well for me over the past few years.
My best advice when it comes to being gluten free and racing (or for anyone else, for that matter) is stick to your routine! We have all made the mistake of purchasing some “this will make me into Superman/woman” new product the day before an important race only to find it put us on the side of the road heaving and wondering how this could possibly have happened! Stick to what you know, and Superman/woman is in YOU.
Outside of training and racing, my fiancé and I started a tradition of pizza night every Sunday evening. Our weekends are usually packed with rigorous exercise and activities and, as we usually have a BIG hunger on Sunday, pizza night is something we look forward to. There is little prep time except for chopping, and I make the pizzas light on the cheese. Best of all, they only take 12 minutes to bake. Because the leftovers are good for lunch the next day, I usually make four pizzas at a time. The crust is light and airy so you don't end up feeling like you have a pizza gut at the beginning of the week.
Who said eating gluten-free has to be a not-so-fun thing?
Breads: Glutino flaxseed bread, Udi's chia and millet bread
Grains: brown rice, quinoa, flax, sesame, chia
Flour: Bona Dea whole grain baking flour
Snacks: Way Better Snacks whole grain seed chips, Mary's Gone Crackers gluten-free seed crackers
Other: King Soba organic buckwheat gluten-free noodles, sweet potatoes
Give this gluten-free pizza recipe a try! I usually make four at a time for the two of us, as the pizzas are pretty light and the leftovers are good for lunch the next day. I’ve even given specifics on brands, as these are my favorite products to use for the best flavor.
Desiree Ficker began running at an early age with the encouragement of her parents, avid track and field fans. By age 9, Ficker was competing in cross country/track and field at the Junior Olympic level. Her running career continued throughout high school and college, where she ran on scholarship for the University of Alabama. After completing her degree in 1998, Ficker was inspired by watching the triathlon Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, and began competing as an amateur while teaching and coaching in Maryland. In 2001, Ficker began her professional triathlete career, moving to the Colorado Olympic Training Center for training. She moved to Austin eight years ago, where she continued her racing career as both a professional triathlete and runner. In addition, Ficker has also founded the Ma Ficker Foundation, which raises money for colon cancer research, in honor of her mother.