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Heather Wurtele Talks Gluten-Free Diet

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  • Published Apr 25, 2011
  • Updated Aug 30, 2011 at 3:01 PM UTC

Heather Wurtele is back to defend her title at Ironman St. George this May. Inside Triathlon Senior Editor Jennifer Purdie chatted with her about her upcoming race and her specific-nutritional needs.

Photo: Kurt Hoy

Triathlete.com: What are the specific reasons for choosing a mostly gluten-free diet?

Wurtele: I used to have chronic, low-level GI issues—the kind that I almost didn’t even realize were detracting from my quality of life and performance—uncomfortable gas, frequent diarrhea, having to have bathrooms mapped out for any run over an hour. Only when I removed gluten from my diet did I find that my digestion and overall energy levels were a lot better. Every time I relapse and eat bagels and wheat bread, I am okay for a while but then I start to get an upset stomach and simply feel worse. A lot of people harp on “gluten free” as just being another fad, and having little scientific evidence to support it. Quantitative measures may be tricky, but qualitatively, if you remove gluten from your diet and feel a heck of a lot better, that’s good enough for me.

Triathlete.com: What are the benefits of being gluten free and being an athlete?

Wurtele: If you have sensitivity to gluten it can stimulate an inflammatory response and inhibit absorption of nutrients in your intestines. Given that our bodies are working hard to repair from training, it makes sense to avoid added digestive stress. Not having to dive into the bushes on long runs, or make port-a-potty stops during an Ironman marathon is a big plus.

Triathlete.com: What are the challenges?

Wurtele: As a lover of baked goods—bagels, hearty breads, muffins—but not a lover of actual baking (living in an RV tends to put the kibosh on that) it can be a bit tricky to find gluten-free breadstuffs. There are more and more pre-made bread options available (rice bread, chia bread, etc.) that don’t cost an arm and a leg. A big challenge when you first start eliminating gluten is to maintain adequate calories from carbohydrates if you are a big bread eater.

Triathlete.com: How do you go about doing something simple like grocery shopping?

Wurtele: Grocery shopping is actually pretty easy. Look up the grains that contain gluten and read the nutrition labels. Some unintuitive products are soy sauce and salad dressings. Most grain-type products tend to advertise “gluten free” anyway. I noticed a big gluten-free sign on rice and corn Chex the other day. There are lots of great brown rice, corn and quinoa pastas available. Buy corn instead of wheat tortillas. Bob’s Red Mill makes awesome gluten-free pancake mix, hot cereals and bread/brownie mixes. Nature’s Path Mesa Sunrise is my favorite gluten-free breakfast cereal. Like anything, you get your routine down and learn where to find the things you need. I don’t really feel like I miss out on anything.

Triathlete.com: How about eating at a restaurant?

Wurtele: It is pretty easy to find gluten-free menu items—sides of rice or potatoes instead of pasta. Corn tortillas if you are going for Mexican. Avoid the soy sauce if you are going for sushi (or sneak in some gluten-free Braggs). Several nicer pizza joints that I know have gluten-free options, too. If you must have that big plate of baked lasagna and garlic toast or a burger on a sleazy white bun, then it’s just a matter of dealing with the digestive consequences later.

Triathlete.com: Can you explain to us what your nutrition/diet would look like in a typical day?

Wurtele: Example menu:

Breakfast – Gluten-free cereal with blueberries, walnuts, banana and agave nectar, and almond milk. Coffee.

Swim – First Endurance EFS drink on deck. Recovery drink (Ultragen from First Endurance) orange, apple (some piece of fruit).

Lunch – Quinoa salad, maybe a rice bread with peanut butter and jam.

Long ride – EFS bar (gluten free), EFS drink, water.

Run – Water, EFS drink.

Recovery smoothie: Ultragen, frozen berries, veggie greens, Fish oil, banana and chia.

Dinner – Fish, brown rice, salad with lots of veggies, raisins, nuts and avocado.

Triathlete.com: Any advice for triathletes wishing to follow a gluten-free or mostly gluten-free diet?

Wurtele: Just do a bit of research before hand to figure out some food alternatives. I found the Gluten Free Living page on the Team First Endurance website very helpful. Advice from a high performance sport nutritionist can also be invaluable. I have had a lot of help from Noa Deutsch of Victoria, BC.

Triathlete.com: On to racing, how did you feel at Oceanside? What did you think of the course?

Wurtele: Oceanside is a great early-season race. The course is fantastic with some good terrain on the bike and there is always a stellar field of athletes toeing the line. I was a bit bummed to come in fourth place, just off the podium, but my time was within two minutes of the winner Mirinda Carfrae, so I really can’t call it a bad day.

Triathlete.com: You are racing St. George this year, which is a tough, hilly course. How has the training been going?

Wurtele: The training for St. George has been fantastic. My husband and I have been training with The Triathlon Squad all winter under the guidance of coach Paulo Sousa. Several month-long training camps with committed, full-time athletes have really helped us up our game and reach new fitness levels.

We drove to Utah after Oceanside and it has been great to get some solid time on the very challenging course and to connect with the community in the area. We made a lot of friends here last year, and people are really excited about the Ironman. It is a great place to train and being defending champion always adds to the positive vibes.

Triathlete.com: You raced and won it last year. Any advice for newbies on that course?

Wurtele: Embrace the elements. If you love to climb, this is definitely the course for you. Even as a strong cyclist, I would highly recommend something bigger than a 26 on the rear cog set, and be sure to take it easy on the steep climbs for that first loop.

The run is really a strength course so you just need to be patient and keep the pressure on. The scenery is fantastic and the volunteers are amazing so feel the love and let that fuel you.

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