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Food allergies create challenges in endurance events

Completing a 200- mile bike event in two days would seem like a sizeable enough challenge to most people. A cyclist with food allergies faces an additional challenge: finding “safe” foods that will sustain rather than derail their pedaling efforts. Consuming energy foods or drinks with the “wrong” ingredients can spell disaster in the form of stomach cramping, bloating, nausea or intestinal problems.

Having a successful and satisfying experience was foremost on my mind when I registered for the Seattle-to-Portland Bicycle Classic 2007 (STP), held July 14-15. As a cyclist with food allergies and a rare stomach disorder, I knew finding the right energy foods and drinks would be critical.

I hadn’t been willing to tackle a long endurance event in several years as my past experiences had left me with unpleasant memories of digestive distress. I had simply toughed it out and suffered the consequences post-ride as symptoms of food intolerances sometimes make their presence known for days afterwards. The task seemed daunting but this event would be different.

I started with a training plan in early spring that made testing various energy drinks and foods as important as building up mileage on the bike. Foods that worked for many of my cycling friends would not be the right match for me. I have food sensitivities to eggs, milk, wheat, nuts, peanuts and other legumes, oats, barley, bananas, oranges, apples, artificial sweeteners and many preservatives.

Packaged energy bars and powdered sports drinks are the foods of choice for most athletes participating in long events because they are lightweight, packable, not perishable and high density in terms of nutrition. Unfortunately, many of these energy products contain common food allergens, including wheat, milk, nuts, soy or engineered ingredients, such as high fructose corn syrup. Be vigilante when reading the ingredients on the label. Then take the foods for a test run by simulating the event you will be participating in.

On a Saturday and Sunday prior to STP, my husband, cycling friends and I did two 80-to-90-mile bike rides. I packed along everything I planned to consume during the actual event. Trial runs help you figure out if you have enough food, and if those foods pass the test of nourishing you safely while you are exercising vigorously. During hard exercise, athletes need to consume approximately 240-320 calories per hour. If you don’t have enough food, you’re more likely to eat something you shouldn’t that will make you sick.

My energy drinks for each day of the trial run included: grape-flavored Cytomax, a sports drink, and Perpeteum, an endurance sports drink that includes a soy protein source. I drank one 16-ounce serving of each per hour as temperatures on both days were in the 90s. I carried a plastic bag with additional powder for both drinks and refilled my bottles throughout the day. Other beverages I stashed in the trunk pack on our tandem bike were one serving-sized box of soy/rice milk which requires no refrigeration and a can of V-8 vegetable juice. I drank both as well as copious quantities of water that I obtained at rest stops.

Along with fluids, it’s nice to have something solid to chomp on. I packed along two chocolate chip Clif bars which are wheat and dairy-free but only ate one. I carried two Clif Shot gels, vanilla flavor, but didn’t need them. Other foods I finished off were salted boiled potatoes (six small) and a kiwi, good sources of carbohydrates and potassium. Both days we had lunch stops planned at Mexican restaurants that we knew would have safe menu items. I ordered two chicken tacos in soft corn tortillas and a bowl of tortilla soup.

In the next article in this food allergy series, I will explain the essential foods to have with you during an endurance event.

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