Finding the right types of foods and drinks to have before competitions and workouts can be difficult for some athletes, especially those with dietary needs and restrictions. For Gillian St. John, junior sprint free stylist for the University of Utah women’s swim and dive team, being gluten-free has its obstacles.
St. John started her gluten-free diet about six years ago after a blood test revealed she was allergic. It turned out gluten sensitivity runs in her family. Both her mom and sister have celiac disease, which means they have trouble absorbing protein, causing an immune response in the lower intestine when it’s consumed. There are over 200 reactions or symptoms of gluten sensitivity, such as fatigue, stomach aches and bloating. St. John found the initial transition to a gluten-free diet difficult because gluten is in many everyday foods.
“In the beginning, I was cheating a lot and eating gluten all the time,” St. John said. “Sometimes I’ll accidentally eat gluten without knowing it and then at practice it doesn’t feel good, or at a meet I can tell I’ve eaten it.”
Once she was able to successfully cut gluten from her diet, St. John’s symptoms subsided. This helped her to “have more energy and feel a lot better” while competing and practicing in the pool. There are often misconceptions about athletes dieting, but St. John took this route for medical reasons, and she found healthy ways to maintain her nutrition.
This past season, she contributed to several wins in the 200 medley relay, 400 free relay and the 200 free relay. Although she loves relays, she thrives in sprints, specifically the 50 free. Another college career highlight includes when she competed at the United States Olympic Trials in the 50 free. Achieving such accolades takes dedication and discipline, in and out of the water.
One of the many challenges of following a gluten-free meal plan is having access to products that don’t contain gluten. St. John mentioned how this diet is more expensive and finding reasonable food items at the store is a challenge. However, the U provides its athletes with fueling stations, a small on-campus facility that has access to nutritional snacks and beverages.
“The [fueling stations] have a bunch of gluten-free options,” St. John said.
Like many Utes, St. John takes advantage of the fueling station before and after workouts to make sure she gets the nutrients her body needs. Head coach Joe Dykstra encourages his athletes to make use of the resources given to them.
“It can’t be overstated enough how critically important [nutrition] is,” Dykstra said. “Not just what types of things you eat, but a matter of when you eat in relation to your training and racing.”
Although there are many athletes on the swim and dive team with dietary needs and restrictions, it doesn’t affect the team in a negative way, according to Dykstra.
“Any time you have a dietary restriction that will keep you from eating something, you just have to be careful,” Dykstra said.
St. John recommends others give the gluten-free diet a try.