Ask any endurance athlete and they’ll tell you a huge part of what they do is mental. Of course, training and nutrition are crucial to having a successful race—or a big day in the mountains—but if you’re not prepared to stick with it, the trip is over before it’s really even begun. Whether you’re running an ultramarathon, climbing a rugged peak, biking a hundred miles, or otherwise accomplishing a superhuman feat, persistence is key.
This is true of the gluten-free lifestyle, too. If you’re sticking to a gluten-free diet, it’s not always easy to avoid the foods you’re craving—especially if you’re part of a sport where post-adventure pizza and beer are practically worshipped.
“It only took me a few days to see the benefits of avoiding gluten,” says Joe Rogat, a marathoner and high-ropes technician who’s been gluten-free for about eight years. His wife noticed that he was often uncomfortable after his usual post-run PB&J and suggested an elimination diet, and after a couple of days without wheat, Rogat felt significantly better.
In the years since he first went gluten-free, Rogat, who describes himself as “a little obsessed with nutrition,” has experimented with a number of different diets, including ketogenic and raw veganism, to see which had the best effects on this performance. Throughout that time, he’s maintained his gluten-free diet about 98% of the time, he estimates.
Once You Make the Leap, Stick with It
“I grew up on the ‘All-American Diet,’” says Rogat, who was one of three kids. His family of five mostly had quick meals that were easy to throw together after a long work day—in other words, there was no concept of gluten-free, let alone whole or simple foods. With a lot of mac-and-cheese on board in his gluten-intolerant system, Rogat says, “I just kind of assumed that’s what eating was—when you’re full, it kind of hurts.”
Rogat knows how to push through the pain. An accomplished runner, climber, and mountaineer, he’s lived in South America, Alaska, and, for more than a year, in a van in North Carolina—all while maintaining his fitness and gluten-free diet, which hasn’t always been easy. It can be tempting to reach for a beer at the end of a big workout, he says, but he knows the feeling in his guts the next morning won’t be worth a few refreshing sips.
Eat Foods That Fuel You
When Rogat went gluten-free, he estimates he was giving up about 80% of the foods that were normally on his training table, which meant figuring out a new normal. Now, he fuels with complex carbs like beets and sweet potatoes when he needs an energy boost for workouts longer than a couple of hours, and makes sure to build in time (and foods) to recover between races.
It’s also important to find snacks that taste good when you’re in the middle of a tough race, says Krissy Moehl, an author and ultrarunner who’s won the Trail du Mont Blanc twice. Moehl isn’t always gluten-free herself, but her boyfriend has an athletics-induced allergic reaction to gluten, which means she avoids it as much as possible. One of her favorite trail snacks is pitted Medjool dates stuffed with a teaspoon or two of nut butter, dark chocolate, and espresso.
Worry Less About What Others Are Doing
When Moehl started ultrarunning in 2000, she was 22 years old. “Being female,” she says of her early days in the sport, “I was kind of an oddball at the time.” While Moehl was one of few women participating in long races, she didn’t let that bother her, and she was more concerned with her times than who else she saw on the trail.
Moehl’s insistence on sticking with ultrarunning has paid off in spades. She now has a long list of accolades to her name, including wins at the Hardrock 100 and Hurt 100, a run around Mount Kilimanjaro, and a handful of races in Patagonia. “I’ve been lucky enough to fill a passport with stamps and use my legs as a way of exploration,” she says of her running career. These days, in addition to her own running, Moehl works as a coach. She’s also the author of Running Your First Ultra, a how-to guide for not only for aspiring ultrarunners, but for anyone who’s ready to up the ante and run a faster, longer, or better race.
Be Stubborn If You Need To
Stubbornness gets a bad reputation, but it can be a useful training tool. It can mean making sacrifices to stick to a training schedule even when the weather is bad or you’re tired after a long day of work. It can also mean sticking to your guns about your dietary needs, even when it’s not convenient.
Rogat knows a few things about that. It can be tough to explain a specific diet to friends or coworkers you’re eating with, especially when that diet changes occasionally. Rather than letting those sideways glances rattle him, though, Rogat often offers to make reservations for the whole group at a gluten-free-friendly restaurant, or, when it’s possible, brings food he knows he can eat. He’s also an excellent cook, and now that he’s moved out of the Sprinter van and into a house with a foundation he’s always looking for an occasion to host.
Like running a long race, going (and staying) gluten-free has its challenges. Both require occasionally ignoring those cravings in favor of something that will leave your body feeling strong the next day. And you’re bound to run into a few bumps in the road. But it’s well worth the effort when you cross the finish line, reach the summit, or head out on a run feeling like a million bucks instead of feeling like your former sluggish self.
Written by Emma Walker in partnership with The Gluten Free Bar.