Paula’s Race To Beat Intolerance

Paula’s Race To Beat Intolerance

This article has been reproduced by kind permission of The Mail on Sunday YOU Magazine

In August 2004 Paula Radcliffe, now 37, wept as she told BBC viewers she didn’t know what went wrong in her failed bid for the marathon at the Athens Olympics. ‘I’ve never before not been able to finish,’ she said. ‘I felt there was nothing in my legs.’ She dismissed the intense heat as a possible reason. But it wasn’t until she took a food intolerance test, on medical advice, that Paula discovered the underlying cause was that ‘I’d literally run out of energy, because I hadn’t been absorbing food for several days before the race, due to my body’s intolerance of certain foods’.

Food allergy and intolerance often get mixed up. An allergy (eg to nuts, peanuts, shellfish, or to gluten as in coeliac disease) is a rapid, sometimes life-threatening, response by the immune system to the tiniest trace of a food, which the body mistakes for an invader. An intolerance, or sensitivity, is due to the body’s inability to process a particular food, and may take hours or days; it’s much more common and can cause distressing symptoms, but is rarely life-threatening.

Paula says: ‘I’d probably always been sensitive to different foods but I never knew that’s what it was. I knew I had to avoid too many dairy items because I’d get symptoms of IBS [irritable bowel syndrome] like bloating and pain. It bothered me most if I ran during the afternoon but most major races were earlier and I learned to live with it.’

In Athens, because of injuries, Paula was taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatories by mouth (which are associated with digestive problems), was given cortisone injections ‘and of course I was stressed. The combination of that with my food sensitivities really inflamed my intestines so whatever I ate just passed straight through me, even usually calming foods like oats. In the race, I had no “fuel” left in my muscle glycogen stores so I literally hit the floor and could go no further.’

After a colonoscopy and coeliac test came back clear, YorkTest Laboratories (, 0800 074 6185) analysed Paula’s blood sample (two or three drops are all that’s needed). This revealed she had ‘loads of intolerances: as well as dairy, I was sensitive to chicken, egg whites, wheat, gluten, soya, oats and tomatoes. At first, I thought “oh goodness, I can’t eat anything” and I really like my food! But they explain that it’s not 100 per cent rigid and once you start feeling better, you really want to do it.’

Paula found she wasn’t ‘totally stuck – I could eat lots of fish, steak, rice, potatoes and vegetables, also bread and pasta made of rice. And dark chocolate never upset me!’ Because food intolerances, unlike food allergies, may cease to cause problems once the stomach has calmed and healed, Paula found she could reintroduce some foods, like chicken and tomatoes, within three months. Wheat and gluten took much longer, and she’s still careful only to eat small amounts.

She deals with her long term intolerance to lactose (the sugar in dairy products) by mostly consuming almond and rice milks. But interestingly, during her recent second pregnancy – Raphael was born in September last year, a brother for four year old Isla – Paula found she could tolerate dairy ‘a lot better: my biggest intolerance is cow’s milk, but I like cheese and can eat a little sheep or goats cheese, and the occasional yogurt, without a problem’. One general rule is to snack on fruit on its own, rather than as part of a meal – and certainly never at the end of a meal because it tends to ferment. (For general information,

After Raphael’s birth, Paula decided to do another food intolerance test: ‘I felt the hormonal changes had shifted the balance of [my digestion] a bit’. This time, instead of lots of severe reactions, the YorkTest showed she had a weak sensitivity to blackcurrants, soya beans, peppers, gluten and oats. Today, she says, she feels ‘in control’ of the intolerances although her stomach occasionally flares up for no reason. She knows then not to try and run through it – ‘that puts my stomach in spasm for the rest of the day’ – to rehydrate by drinking plenty of water and taking electrolytes (like Dioralyte), and not to eat too much fibre for a few days.

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