For me stress and food are the two most common factors that drive bouts of IBS – as I’ve found trying to sit on a bike for 16 or more hours a day quite quickly triggers at least one of those factors. So, as part of my 5 year plan and the pursuit of endurance cycling glory (in my terms at least) I need to get a grip on my IBS and control it, rather than it controlling me and my performance.
What is Irritable Bowl Syndrome (IBS)
I use the term IBS a lot and should remember that not everyone knows what the three letters stand for or really mean. So, according to the NHS, “IBS is a chronic, relapsing and often life-long condition, and symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating and a change of bowel habit. More than four million people in the UK suffer from IBS.” Its a polite description, genuinely at it best its uncomfortable at worst its both embarrassing and debilitating and as such a source of many a black day for me.
IBS for me is driven by food and stress, as I’ve said, both of which are key in endurance sports where you body is put under intense pressure from prolonged exertion, making eating the right fuel hugely important both off and on the bike.
Why change my diet now?
I knew something needed to change after taking on my 5 Cities Challenge – my aim was to cycle 1,000 miles around Europe, however after just shy of 300 miles the challenge ended in Paris. I was hugely under-fueled, I’d picked up a stomach bug and both things caused my IBS to flare up – the final day was a mess as I just tried to get to the Eiffel Tower, frequently stopping to vomit in dark Parisian alleyways. Boarding the Eurostar I resolved to change my approach to these challenges. I naively assumed that bringing a Coach on would solve the issue – train right, make myself strong and therefore be better able to mange the physical exertions required. While to a large extent the coaching provided by Pav at Spokes has indeed made me stronger, it hasn’t removed the external stress or the irritants I’m putting in to my body.
Earlier in the year I organised Run the Peaks – 5 runners aiming to break a 36 year old record for relay running the National Three Peaks (440 miles in less that 54hrs). This challenge just went to prove how little I had learnt – I was unwell before I’d even got to the start line, having suffered from fatigue, sweats and frequent bouts of IBS for a month leading up to the challenge start. The stress and pressure associated with organising the challenge, fundraising, managing 4 other people and continuing to train all took its toll and I burnt out. Within hours of starting the challenge, I was running my stints sandwiched between stopping to go to the toilet in hedges along the roadside and at points I was retching as I ran. Much like in Paris, this challenge ended early – with the team running from Fort William to Carlisle and raising £2.5k for charity.
I remember the days immediately after the challenge crying, talking to Pav and my girlfriend at length about how I felt. I was genuinely considering stopping all of it, I felt lost and defeated. I wasn’t sure I could do it to myself again – there was too much failure, no love there and I felt like I was simply abusing myself for the need to go further, faster and longer in order to raise money…
…we agreed, something had to change.
Engaging a specialist
Thankfully Louise and Pav were there to listen and ask the right questions and quickly my mindset changed. No quitting, but I really needed learn this time and change for good, for the better.
So, in September I engaged the services of a Nutritionist through Spokes, to get some professional help with my gut.
The first thing I had to do was to kept a food diary for 2 weeks (the key here is to be honest – so all the biscuits and cakes I ate and put down as ‘it’s just fuel for the fire’ or ‘I’ve earnt it’ needed to be on there honestly). After this I had an initial consultation in which Rosie, the Nutritionist, and I went through the general aspects of my daily life, my symptoms, my diet and training. The result of this was a detailed guidance, a food plan, recipes and more general wellness advice.
A plan was born…I just had to follow it.
Over a four week period I’ve undertaken an elimination diet (I dislike the word diet, because that comes with a connotation of weight loss, which this is not what it’s about. For me this is about repairing my gut and to encourage better tolerance long term, particularly in respect to my endurance cycling plans).
The principles of the diet have been this;
- Remove gluten and dairy entirely for 4 weeks – this is primarily to help to identify trigger foods, ones that are more likely to aggravate the lining of the gut.
- Reduce or, ideally, remove refined sugars – Sugar feeds bad bacteria in the gut
- Reduce caffeine intake – I was over reliant on coffee to provide a boost when my energy levels dropped, typically in the afternoons or on long rides.
- Structured meals – This means eating a regular times, with consistent intervals. This deals with the issues of hunger driving bad choices and ensures I use protein to keep my blood sugar levels constant throughout the day, avoiding that afternoon slump.
- Supplementing my diet – I’ve been taking specific supplements to aid digestion and calm the gut. This isn’t all tablets by the way, I’ve been using foods, herbal teas and natural products alongside some traditional supplements to help repair and re-balance the gut.
Two months later
It’s now two months since I’ve been on this new diet – I wanted to just share a few lines about what has changed.
Getting the nutritional support from Spokes has been a game changer for me!
I feel amazing. I can honestly say this is the best I’ve felt in years – since suffering acute pancreatitis in 2014 I’ve suffered more severely with the IBS and I can’t remember a time between then and now that I’ve felt this good. Within 3 days of starting the elimination diet I noticed a change, reduced bloating and gas after eating, my toilet habits became more regular and within a week I’d lost any signs of that ‘urgent need to go’ that is often the hallmark of irritating foods or stress.
I’ve lost weight (not that I needed to or mind either way), my skin is better with more colour and my energy levels are really good – I feel good throughout the day and have largely lost the 3pm slump! My girlfriend commented the other day how much more balanced I’d been, how my mood had been better and more constantly up.
For me, her noticing that change in me has made this more worth it than anything else – that I really do feel like I can take my training to the next level.
Food influences every aspect of our lives – from how we feel physically to how we feel about ourselves, to how well we train and therefore our ability to hit our goals. It’s only now I’m starting to appreciate how badly the IBS was affecting me – but I now feel in control and generally happier!
…Oh and I’ve decided to stay Gluten and Dairy free, its working so why mess with it, right!?
Find out more
This blog isn’t intended to offer medical advice and it shouldn’t be taken as such, its simply a summary of my own learning and journey. If you can relate to anything I’ve talked about then get in touch with Spokes and have an initial chat, at no cost, to see if they can help you. I genuinely couldn’t recommend their nutrition package more highly.
Website – spokes.fit