Wednesday, February 16, 2011

It's not easy to be a high performance athlete & gluten intolerant

Matt Jensen
We'd like to welcome our first ever guest blogger, Matt Jensen. Matt is a 32 year old rower based in Victoria, BC. He has been a member of the Canadian national rowing team since 2003, with 7 international medals. He is a 5 time Canadian Champion and most recently he won a bronze medal at the 2010 World Rowing Championships in New Zealand.

I was approached by Jay Bigam of Kinnikinnick a few weeks ago to write a blog post about the challenges I face as an Athlete and being gluten intolerant. The greatest thing about being asked was the fact it all stemmed from me posting a tweet about how much I enjoyed the Kinnikinnick pancakes one morning, amazing how social media can connect people. As you can see I say I’m gluten intolerant and not a celiac. 

My issues with gluten actually started in the Summer of 2008, I am not sure what set it off, but all I remember is getting ill after eating pasta and then the following week getting sick again after having pasta again. I then realized that every time I had gluten I was getting an upset stomach, flushed face and just overall lethargic feeling for many days. I feel I need to give a bit of background info of my 2008 rowing season, just so the rest of my post makes sense. As you are aware, 2008 was the last summer Olympics and I was training hard to prepare for the Olympics. In the end I was not selected to be in an Olympic boat however I was in a good position to be a spare. After my first International race of the season I was starting to have back issues which ended up with me having a disc bulge in L4-L5, which ended my rowing season. So I am not sure if it was my sudden decrease in training that ended up with me having issues with gluten, or just another thing that was tacked onto things that could go wrong in 2008. This back injury did not go away as quick as I wanted it to and in the end I missed all of the 2009 season. This leads up to this past season, 2010, which was my first season training on a gluten limited diet.

Rares Crisan & Matt Jensen with Bronze Medals; New Zealand 2010
At first there were no real issues since most of the time I am based at home and had a really good routine of what I needed to eat to fuel my training. At this point I feel I need to describe typical training for a national team rower -  in a week we have 19 sessions, 2 hrs per session, with one day off, so have a caloric need of 4000-6000 per day. Optimal food is a major component to fuel this training and an important part of our success. So when things you eat are causing you to not perform at your best, its a major problem. Once I got back into training full time I was starting to realize that what I was eating was not giving me the energy I needed. And this is where Kinnikinnick became a vital part of my training. I am not sure if I just ignored the options of what was available to me for gluten free products, or the fact that the grocery store where I shopped did not carry a wide range of products. I just happened to visit another store one day that had a big selection of Kinnikinnick and where I found my covenant pancake mix. I think it is the simple things in life that make it great, and pancakes are one of these things. I can tell you that where ever I travel in the world, I take a bag with me just in case there are no good options for me.

This leads me into talking about traveling, which is by far the hardest part. First there is the issue of having to travel for up to 24hrs some times to reach our destination. This is when I realized that if I did not pack enough food, I was going to have issues finding enough food in the airport. The second issue is that we have our meals supplied to us at whatever hotel we are staying at, so this means breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This year my travel included Italy, Slovenia, Switzerland, England, and New Zealand. We do have nutritionists that do supply hotels with recipe ideas, however sometimes they don’t really listen or they just put a bowl of plain white rice out every night. I make due with what I get, however, I found out on my first trip that I was missing deserts and treats. So for all other trips I made sure to stock up on some Kinnikinnick snacks before I left Canada. You are probably wondering why deserts mean so much to me, I forgot to mention I’m a lightweight rower, this means we have to make a weight limit, therefore food is limited before racing and snacks/deserts are something that help satisfy those food cravings. Not all countries are the same, for instance England has an amazing selection of gluten free products and are reasonably priced. Then you have places like Italy and Slovenia, where I just resort to eating chocolate due to limit selection or ability to distinguish which products are gluten free. The third issue I encountered was what to do on race day. My usual routine was to pack some buns from the hotel and then put honey or Nutella on them. I remember my first race back and realizing how much these little routines can really affect performance. I now eat gluten free bars or have a piece of fruit.

I hope the above gives you a bit of insight into the trials and tribulations that affect athletes that are gluten intolerant. To be honest with you, being sensitive to gluten has been a good thing. Not only does it make me eat healthy food, it has made me more conscious of what makes me be at my best for training and racing. This week was actually pretty important since it was when they revealed the schedule for the 2012 Olympics. To most this means nothing, but to us athletes it puts a date on when all that hard work comes to fruition. I hope all goes well and that I can be standing on the podium with that Canadian flag wrapped around me and singing the national anthem. I’d like to thank Kinnikinnick for the opportunity to write this blog post and for being a great supporter of gluten free diets.

Matt & the rest of Canada's Lightweight Men's rowing team are trying to break the World's Record for the Fastest 100Km Indoor Rowing Machine Team. They are holding a fund raiser in conjunction with this attempt. For more information on how to donate and support our Canadian Rowers click here. You can pledge online here


The Inkling said...

This was really great! I can totally relate to having a hard time finding food on the road (I not only have celiac's disease, but I am kosher-in, vegetarian-out). I also have begun to notice how my eating habits I my activity habits. It's great to hear how someone with such a physical lifestyle deals with these limitations.

Anonymous said...

I have been told by my friends who have traveled to Italy that it was the most Gluten Free of all their travels. I was told that they test for Celiacs as often as giving immunization there and that Gluten Free items are readily available if you ask. I think planning ahead and investigating the area where you travel would help tremendously.

Lisa said...

It was so awesome to read this. I am a backcountry park ranger in Canada and am gluten intolerant (not Celiac). I need to eat a LOT of calories as many days are 8-10 hours of hiking in steep mountain ranges with a pack and chainsaw. Very hard to do being gluten intolerant. I too love Kinnickinnik products :-) Saved my caboose when i was craving substance such as bread or pancakes.

Keep up these blog entries!!!

Angie Halten said...

Thanks so much for sharing your story. I never really thought how difficult it could be for an athlete that has to live gluten free. I have a whole new appreciation for you all!


Cynthia said...

I have celiac and two out of three of my children do as well. Both children are competitive gymnasts and my son also plays on two ice hockey teams. It can be a challenge to find snacks for them to have during the 4-5 hours of a meet. Also hard to get them to eat enough to keep growing while burning a lot of calories from their sports since they tend to be pretty picky eaters. Thanks for sharing your story. I also have heard Italy has a lot of gluten-free food, so hope you can find it during future trips.

DeAnna said...

Thank you so much for your encouragement. I do triathlons and endurance mountain biking events. I have found the importance of being prepared and packing enough snacks and gluten-free options to get me through events and post-race recovery! Most post-race recovery stations are loaded with foods full of gluten. I love the kinnikinnik products…especially when I crave the carbs and breads that go along with so many pre-race meals!