Wednesday, October 7, 2015

How to be a professional triathlete with celiac - tips and tricks

This week, I am so excited to interview my good friend and professional triathlete, Robin Pomeroy. I met Robin many years ago when she first started triathlon. She has since developed into an amazing triathlete. What makes Robin so impressive is that she juggles her training while fueling gluten-free. Robin was diagnosed with celiac in 2004. Here are her thoughts on living, training and competing gluten-free and what she thinks about the whole "gluten-free diet" fad. 

First, tell me about yourself.

I aspire to take triathlon to the highest level I am capable of. I have a background in competitive swimming, bike racing, and running. I enjoy putting all three sports together now to compete in triathlon. I love the Olympic distance race, but have started racing the half distance this year as well. The two distances are unique and very different to train for, but I enjoy both.

I continue to work as well, and absolutely enjoy my career outside of racing. It is hard to juggle the demands of work and triathlon sometimes, but it keeps me continuously occupied. I thrive on a busy schedule; however, it’s important to keep a healthy balance of everything.

2015 marks my first year competing as a professional. I have launched a website, so you can follow me here:, or at either of my social media accounts: Facebook or Twitter 

Tell me a little about how you were first diagnosed with celiac?
I found out I had Celiac about 10 years ago in 2004/2005. I was a serious high school and collegiate runner who suffered a femoral neck stress fracture that was 80% of the way across the bone - almost causing me to have a hip replacement. Thankfully, it was caught and I had an emergency surgery to pin it up. About a year later, I fractured the other femoral neck, but did not need surgery for this one. Between these fractures, I had blood work and other tests done that revealed some major deficiencies. I was anemic, amenorrheic, osteopenic, and low in many other vitamins and minerals. The combination of these deficiencies and the serious fracture(s) I had led my primary care doctor to refer me to a gastroenterologist, who in turn wanted to test for Celiac Disease. I am thankful that my doctors were insightful enough to test for Celiac Disease because it was not as commonly diagnosed in the U.S. back in 2004.

After you were diagnosed, what was most difficult about fueling?
I was very active so this diagnosis was quite challenging to deal with. I was competing in cross-country, swimming, and track, so had 3 different activities I was training for, plus just being an active person already. While figuring out what foods were gluten free, it was difficult to figure out proper nutrition options and the amount of fuel I needed for my activity level. The gluten free products available seemed to be less nutritious than their gluten-filled counterparts, and the food was just not the same! It took some time to figure out what foods were “naturally” gluten-free and also where to get gluten-free products. When I delved into everything more though, I was surprised with the number of foods I could still eat and that were healthy. It took awhile to figure everything out, but I realized I was not really missing anything. I was able to find the foods I needed. I found Udi’s products, particularly their bread, to be the most similar in taste and texture to gluten-filled bread.

Who or where did you turn to for support with your nutrition?
In 2004, little was known about gluten and Celiac in comparison to now, which made it hard for me to find the foods I needed and wanted. I met with dietitians, counselors and coaches, and had the support of my family, which was huge. It was a large adjustment to my life and couldn’t have made the transition without these key players. I joined a Celiac support group to learn from others and get a sense of how others managed it. I felt like gluten was in everything! It was hidden in so many products and I wasn’t sure of all the ingredients I needed to look for. With the help and support of everyone involved, I slowly gained confidence that I was eating gluten free and choosing good food options.

How long did it take to find a fueling plan that worked for you?
I am still figuring that out! Finding the right nutrition plan is an on-going process for me. Thankfully, I have been working with Sheila Leard RD, CSSD, CPT at My Nutrition Zone in El Dorado Hills, CA, to help me sort out my nutrition plans for training/racing. I have a sensitive gut as well and cannot seem to process a lot of the sports nutrition products during high efforts. The nutrition requirements for the longer course races and a short course Olympic distance are so different, so the past couple of years have been a big learning process.

On a day-to-day basis, I have been able to figure out a nutrition plan that works for the most part. I try hard to get enough of all of the food groups and eat real, un-processed food as much as I can. Everyone seems to want to buy new gluten free products for me. This is fine to have once in awhile, but gluten free brownies and cookies are no better for you than their gluten-filled counterparts, so I try to limit these! Finding gluten-free carbohydrates is very easy now, but getting the right carbs is key. Gluten free products have come a long way since 2004. Many companies have improved the quality and taste and I never crave anything I cannot have. To me, if I eat gluten, I envision myself breaking a bone. This may be extreme, but this was one my consequences of eating gluten previously.

Robin with husband, Brian
What is an ongoing challenge to managing celiac disease and being a professional athlete?
I have found that even though I maintain a gluten-free diet and work hard to fuel myself with the proper products, I am still deficient in some vitamins/minerals. I have worked with Sheila to have micronutrient testing done. I get DEXA scans every other year to make sure my bone density stays healthy. My bone density normalized after I was initially diagnosed and I need to make sure I maintain a normal density.

Finding supplements that meet the needs of a professional athlete is very challenging. It needs to abide by the US Anti-doping agency rules ( and has to (obviously) be gluten free. There are a lot of ‘unknown’ ingredients in supplements, so the USADA doesn’t have a list of approved supplements. However, there are third party resources that test and certify supplements as clean for sport. BUT, the risk is always there that there is something in the supplement that is banned from competition. So I have found it very difficult to find something that works. It’s best to avoid supplements when possible, but I have also found that even when fueling properly with good forms of certain foods, I still have some deficiencies. It’s a continual education process to find and then incorporate better forms of these foods into my diet.

What advice would you give other athletes trying to manage celiac disease?
Stay on top of your health! Be inquisitive, proactive, diligent, and persistent. Educate people on your condition. I bring my own food when I travel and/or make sure I research the area ahead of time for places I can get gluten free foods. It gets tedious and annoying at times, but it’s worth it in the end. Find a primary care doctor who has good knowledge of Celiac Disease, and who also understands (or is willing to learn about) the rigors of training and competing for sport. For athletes, “normal” ranges for certain tests are sometimes much higher than the average person. Both your doctor and you need to know what to be looking for. Blood tests are the best way to make sure you are staying healthy. Get these done regularly.

Make sure you know what products will be served as on-course nutrition. It is best to carry everything you need for a race, but in the event you need something, it’s good to know what is being distributed. If the on-course nutrition products are not gluten-free friendly, talk to the race director and see if there is anything that can be done – whether that means they will supplement their products or you can put something separate at the aid station.

Work with a dietitian, attend gluten free seminars or Celiac support groups, and always keep learning. Just like it’s important to be a student of your sport, it’s just as important to be a student of your medical condition. Companies change their ingredients more often than I would like, so I am always double-checking foods to make sure they are still good for me.

What are your thoughts on those athletes who choose to go gluten-free without a diagnosis of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity?

There are athletes who eat gluten free who don’t actually have any known gluten sensitivity. This is hard for people who HAVE to eat gluten-free and cannot choose otherwise. The gluten free craze has both helped and hurt those with Celiac Disease. There are more available products to eat, and most grocery stores have something that’s gluten free. A lot more people know what gluten is now too, which is so different than in 2004. However, the downside to this is that people who choose to eat gluten-free don’t care about cross-contamination, which is a HUGE issue with Celiacs. The gluten-free fad diet has also downplayed the severity of Celiac Disease because when people hear “gluten free,” they sometimes don’t quite understand what it means for a Celiac. Always check with your doctor and dietitian before starting something new. If you think that a gluten-free diet might be beneficial, why do you think that? Discuss this thoroughly before making significant life changes.

Thanks, Robin, for your thoughts and insight!

Your Nutrition Coach,


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