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Allergies and Intolerances in Competitive Sports: Coaches’ Guide

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Allergies and intolerances can have a significant impact on athletes, especially those involved in competitive sports. Coaches play a crucial role in ensuring the well-being and performance of their athletes, and understanding allergies and intolerances is essential for providing appropriate support. This guide aims to provide coaches with valuable insights into allergies and intolerances in competitive sports, equipping them with the knowledge to create a safe and inclusive environment for all athletes.

The Difference Between Allergies and Intolerances

Before delving into the specifics of allergies and intolerances in competitive sports, it is important to understand the difference between the two. Allergies are immune system reactions triggered by specific substances, known as allergens. These reactions can range from mild to severe and can affect various parts of the body, such as the skin, respiratory system, and gastrointestinal tract.

On the other hand, intolerances are adverse reactions to certain foods or substances that do not involve the immune system. Intolerances are typically caused by the body’s inability to digest or process specific substances, such as lactose or gluten. While intolerances may cause discomfort and digestive issues, they are generally not life-threatening like allergies.

Prevalence of Allergies and Intolerances in Athletes

Allergies and intolerances are relatively common among athletes, and their prevalence can vary depending on the sport and individual factors. According to a study published in the journal Sports Medicine, up to 35% of athletes may experience some form of food allergy or intolerance.

One reason for the higher prevalence of allergies and intolerances in athletes is the increased exposure to potential allergens. Athletes often consume a wide range of foods and supplements to support their training and performance, increasing the likelihood of encountering allergens or substances that trigger intolerances.

Additionally, intense physical activity and exercise can affect the immune system and gastrointestinal function, potentially exacerbating existing allergies or intolerances. The stress placed on the body during training and competition can also lead to increased inflammation, which may further contribute to allergic reactions or intolerances.

Identifying Allergies and Intolerances in Athletes

Recognizing allergies and intolerances in athletes can be challenging, as symptoms can vary widely and may overlap with other conditions. Coaches should be vigilant and observant, paying attention to any signs or symptoms that may indicate an allergy or intolerance.

Some common symptoms of allergies include:

  • Hives or skin rashes
  • Swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat
  • Difficulty breathing or wheezing
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Itchy or watery eyes

Intolerances, on the other hand, often manifest as digestive issues, such as:

  • Abdominal pain or cramps
  • Bloating or gas
  • Diarrhea or loose stools
  • Nausea or vomiting

If an athlete exhibits any of these symptoms, it is crucial to seek medical advice and conduct appropriate testing to confirm the presence of allergies or intolerances. Allergy testing, such as skin prick tests or blood tests, can help identify specific allergens, while intolerances may require elimination diets or breath tests.

Managing Allergies and Intolerances in Competitive Sports

Once allergies or intolerances are identified in athletes, coaches play a vital role in managing and accommodating these conditions. Here are some strategies coaches can implement:

1. Education and Awareness

Coaches should educate themselves and their team about allergies and intolerances, including common triggers and symptoms. This knowledge will help create a supportive environment and enable prompt action in case of an allergic reaction or intolerance flare-up.

2. Individualized Meal Plans

Working with a sports nutritionist or dietitian, coaches can develop individualized meal plans for athletes with allergies or intolerances. These plans should ensure that athletes receive adequate nutrition while avoiding trigger foods or substances. It is important to consider the specific dietary needs of each athlete and make necessary adjustments to their meal plans.

3. Allergen-Free Training Facilities

Creating allergen-free training facilities can significantly reduce the risk of exposure for athletes with allergies. Coaches should ensure that training areas are thoroughly cleaned and free from common allergens, such as dust, pollen, and pet dander. Additionally, providing allergen-free snacks and drinks in team facilities can help prevent accidental exposure.

4. Emergency Action Plans

Coaches should develop and communicate emergency action plans to address allergic reactions or intolerance flare-ups. These plans should include clear instructions on how to administer medication, such as epinephrine auto-injectors for severe allergic reactions. Coaches should also be trained in first aid and CPR to provide immediate assistance if needed.

5. Collaboration with Medical Professionals

Coaches should work closely with medical professionals, such as allergists or dietitians, to ensure the best possible care for athletes with allergies or intolerances. Regular communication and updates on athletes’ conditions and progress can help guide training and dietary adjustments.


Allergies and intolerances can significantly impact athletes’ performance and well-being. Coaches have a crucial role in creating a safe and inclusive environment for athletes with allergies or intolerances. By understanding the difference between allergies and intolerances, recognizing symptoms, and implementing appropriate management strategies, coaches can support their athletes and help them thrive in competitive sports.

Remember, each athlete is unique, and individualized care is essential. By working closely with medical professionals and providing education and awareness, coaches can ensure that all athletes receive the support they need to excel in their chosen sports.

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