What is coeliac disease and how does it affect training?

Are you gluten- or wheat-free but worried about getting the fuelling vs training balance right? Dietician and sports nutritionist Renee McGregor has some advice

Buckwheat is a gluten-free alternative to wheat-based ingredients

If you’re at all worried you might have coeliac disease, the first thing you should do is seek professional medical advice to establish whether you do have it. Coeliac disease is a serious, well-defined illness in which the body’s immune system attacks itself when gluten is eaten.


This causes damage to the gut lining, so the body cannot properly absorb nutrients. People with coeliac disease often suffer weight loss, iron-deficiency anaemia and extreme fatigue. Coeliac disease is not a food allergy or intolerance – it’s an autoimmune disease.

What is a wheat allergy?

Wheat allergy, in contrast, is a reaction to proteins found in wheat, triggered by the immune system, which usually occurs within seconds or minutes of eating food containing these proteins.

The symptoms of non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), another separate condition, are similar to those of coeliac disease, but there are no associated antibodies and no damage to the lining of the gut. However, there’s currently no test to determine whether or not this condition actually exists.

Though individuals often report feeling better when sticking to gluten-free (GF) food, it’s possible that this is a placebo effect. Foods containing gluten are on the list of high FODMAP foods (the unwieldy acronym stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols.)

When managing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms it can be useful to remove foods on this list from the diet for a short period; they can then be reintroduced.

What are the performance benefits of going gluten-free?

Many people choose to go GF, having read reports of improved health and performance gains. There’s no scientific proof of these benefits, except of course in those with coeliac disease.

Being diagnosed with an autoimmune condition such as coeliac disease can be life-changing, but with a bit of planning it shouldn’t be difficult to fuel your training. The key thing is to tailor your nutrition to your training sessions.

How should I fuel my training sessions if I’m gluten-free?

Before high-intensity training sessions such as turbo, run intervals or threshold swims, you should fuel up with complex carbohydrates such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice or buckwheat noodles, all of which are naturally GF. Many GF alternatives such as pastas, crackers and bread are often heavily processed and high in fat, sugar and salt, so limit your intake of those.

Remember to recover with a mix of carbohydrate and protein; good options include milkshakes, smoothies or Greek yoghurt with fruit, followed by a balanced meal such as chicken stir-fry with rice.

If you take energy or protein bars before or during training, keep an eye on ingredients: these generally tend to contain gluten. Good GF options include Nakd and Bounce bars. Better still, make your own – experiment with ground almonds, rice flour or gram flour as alternatives to wheat.


Gluten-free recipes