Running, Nutrition and Stomach Issues.
“Runner’s stomach” is totally a thing. If you’ve experienced a wide range of symptoms while running (or during high intensity exercise in general) like stomach cramps, gas, bloating, diarrhea or even occasional vomiting, you are certainly not alone. That’s because digestive distress is one of the most common symptoms amongst runners. Running and other high endurance or intense exercise like cycling or rowing, is in and of itself a way to “shake things up” inside our digestion tract and have things propel inside our systems a little faster than normal. If you didn’t realize, the mechanical forces of running are quite powerful! Therefore, it’s almost more common than not to have a little bit of stomach agitation while performing these high endurance sports.
In taking a deeper dive towards the physiology and anatomy of the body, runners may experience a temporary shortage of blood flow to the gut, leading to short term belly troubles. That’s because once a runner gets going, blood starts to circulate at a higher rate and volume to other areas in the body, like your contracting skeletal muscles and your pumping heart (don’t forget the heart is the hardest working muscle in the body!) Also, dehydration decreases blood flow to the gut, causing even further GI distress and messing with electrolyte balance, running performance and stamina.
Thankfully, in order to mitigate all of these involuntary metabolic changes that come with the territory of being a tried and true runner, there are things we can add to our diets! That way, these foods and nutrients can help soften the blow when it comes to our digestive system and support our bodies to stay as refreshed, energized and balanced during training and of course, race day.
A lot of what goes into running is learning to listen to your own body. Everyone’s stomach reacts differently to foods and to beverages so it’s wise to experiment beforehand, take note and determine what is best for you!
What foods worsen GI issues before running?
Spicy foods: although tempting to go for your fave bowl of hot curry, spicy nachos or fiery chili, this decision may backfire while running. That’s because besides the gastro distress it could cause, it can lead to heartburn and acid reflux which makes running very uncomfortable. However, no need to ditch the spicy foods entirely! Spicy foods typically have high amounts of helpful vitamins like A and C as well as antioxidants which may aid in muscle recovery post-run. Plus, capsaicin, which is the active component in chili peppers, can calm inflamed muscles post run. So, opt for these spicy and sizzlin’ foods after your run to protect both your stomach and your precious pace!
Fibrous foods: While a high fiber diet and high fiber foods comes with a litany of health benefits like diabetes and cholesterol management, healthy gut bacteria, bowel regularity and even hormonal balance, it may not be the best food choice before your run. Fiber is super helpful in the gut because it keeps you fuller longer by pulling water into the stomach and slowing down the digestion process. However, this mechanism can make the gut feel heavy, contributing to feelings of sluggishness and fullness which can negatively impact your run. Some foods that can contribute to these unpleasant symptoms are beans, lentils, nuts, apples, pears, berries, raw veggies like broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. Stick with foods that are easier to digest like cooked vegetables, oatmeal and fruits like bananas, which will make training much more comfortable and seamless.
High fat foods: Unfortunately, this category is not a runner’s ideal choice of food before a run. Fat, both heart healthy fats like mono- and polyunsaturated fat and unhealthy fats coming from saturated fat and trans fat, take their time when it comes to digestion. This long digestion process means it not only keeps you feeling full for long periods of time (which isn’t ideal for runners looking to feel light and spry on their feet) but it also means the body will be wasting time breaking it down when it should be using its energy to get you to the finish line. Plus, fats are not the body's preferred source of fuel for high intensity exercise, like running and training, whereas carbohydrates are. Fats take more energy to digest while carbohydrates are easier to break down and utilize during training. Simply stick to low to moderate amounts of fats post run and lean towards heart healthy options like extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, wild salmon and avocado.
Sweet drinks: highly concentrated beverages are not the way to go before your run. When you overload the gut with too high of a sugar concentration in the form of liquid, it can irritate the stomach and increase the likelihood of gas pocketing and cramping. Some recommend looking for sports drinks with a carbohydrate concentration of 6-8 percent and steering clear of anything over 10 percent carbohydrates like fruit juice or soft drinks. That’s because this higher concentration can slow gastric emptying which refers to how quickly the food or beverage leaves your stomach and is absorbed into the bloodstream. Plus, it may be wise to take small sips instead of big gulps of your preferred beverage during the race because you want to keep fluid volume to a minimum. The more distended and full your stomach becomes with fluid, the faster liquids will empty from your stomach which ups the odds for belly troubles like diarrhea and cramping.
What foods relieve GI issues before running?
Hydrating beverages and foods: dehydration slows down the rate of gastric emptying. That means the helpful carbohydrates in sports drinks or gels during the race may not be absorbed quickly or as efficiently into the bloodstream. That’s why it’s so important to drink adequate amounts of fluid before the race to prevent dehydration. Go for Flow alkaline spring water which has naturally occurring electrolytes and is able to optimally hydrate you with its high quality, artisan water complete with essential minerals. It’s also wise to seek out more hydrating foods prior to training or race day such as cucumbers, watermelon, and citrus fruits.
Easy-to-digest carbohydrates: While this may be a backwards notion when it comes to nutrient dense food choices, it’s wise to go for easy-to-digest carbohydrates like bananas, white toast, and rice before running that are simple for the belly to break down. Even though these foods may not have the widest nutrient profile, they are exactly what the doctor and registered dietitian ordered to ensure a race with minimal belly woes. Although you may enjoy berries, whole grain or wheat toast and brown or basmati rice, these all have tough-to-breakdown fiber which can put constraints on the belly. As always, take note of what works for you with a symptom journal to record any noticeable adverse symptoms to foods.
Probiotic-rich foods: To keep gastrointestinal symptoms at bay and to help the gut recover faster in case there are any unexpected stomach mishaps along the way, add some probiotic rich food into your diet. This will add helpful bacteria to the gut and may help to reduce inflammation and oxidative damage in the body (an unfortunate, yet natural response to running). Plus, research found that when competitive cyclists supplemented with probiotics, they experienced a reduced severity in gastrointestinal symptoms compared to those taking a placebo. Sprinkle some yogurt and cultured non-dairy yogurts, sauerkraut, kombucha and kimchi into your diet for a nice probiotic kick!
By: Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, MS, RD, CDN is a nationally recognized registered dietitian, women’s health expert, author of “The Better Period Food Solution.” Her website is www.tracynutrition.com and follow her at @thehappiestnutritionist on Instagram.