As a runner it’s likely you’ve heard of ‘runner’s trots’ before (and maybe even experienced this unfortunate phenomenon yourself). So what exactly is forcing you to run for the port-a-potty?
“During a run, your blood is diverted away from the stomach and toward the working muscles. That means that any food left in the stomach does not get digested quickly,” explains Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, of Nutrition à la Natalie. “During the constant up and down motion of running, any food left in the stomach will get tossed up and down and cause distress.”
An upset stomach can present itself differently depending on the runner, meaning you may not have the same symptoms as someone you know. However, there are a few common symptoms you may experience that are indicators of something going amiss in your digestive system.
“Some runners can have more upper digestive symptoms, such as burping, reflux, nausea or vomiting,” notes Niki Strealy, RDN, LD, author of “The Diarrhea Dietitian” and owner of Strategic Nutrition, LLC. “Others have mid-intestinal stomach pain and can even suffer from diarrhea.”
Of course, obvious culprits such as eating greasy foods or even eating too much food can cause an upset stomach, but there are a few unexpected things dietitians have found that can cause symptoms, too.
If you’re constantly experiencing GI distress during a run, try to identify whether one of these habits could be the culprit:
1. NOT DRINKING ENOUGH WATER
Dehydration is dangerous for a number of reasons, but not drinking enough water while exposed to heat can also affect your stomach. “Progressive dehydration further decreases blood flow to the gut,” shares Strealy. “This causes symptoms and impacts one’s ability to run effectively.” Going into a run already dehydrated requires you to play catch-up during your run, so drinking fluids before, during and after a run are key in this situation.
2. EATING TOO SOON BEFORE A RUN
It is important to fuel before a run, however, you can eat too close to the time of your run. As Rizzo notes above, that food in your stomach is tossed around throughout your run. “It takes about 2–3 hours to digest a well-balanced meal of carbs, protein and fat,” Rizzo cautions. “If you eat that and try to run an hour later, you will likely feel stomach issues. If you need something to eat right before a run, stick with a simple carb, like a piece of fruit, juice or some crackers.”
3. TRYING NEW FOODS ON THE RUN
It is easy to feel like you are stuck in a rut and eating the same thing day in and day out. However, once you find something that works, you don’t want to do too much experimentation (especially on race day). If you want to get a bit more creative, keeping a food and symptom journal can be a great way to log what works — and doesn’t work — for your stomach.
“Keeping a log of what, when and how much you’re eating, as well as when you run and what your symptoms are may help you identify which foods you tolerate best before a run,” encourages Ashley Charlebois, RD, who specializes in sports nutrition and digestive health. “This strategy may also help you identify your ideal time for a pre-run meal or snack that allows you to have enough energy for your run without causing GI distress.”
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4. OVERDOING THE SUGARY SPORTS DRINKS OR GELS
Sports drinks and gels are a great way to get the energy you need during a run, however, they can also cause GI issues if you aren’t careful. “Just like you need to train your working muscles to tolerate running, you need to train your stomach to tolerate sports drinks and gels.” explains Rizzo. “The sugar in sports drinks passes quickly through the intestines and causes GI issues for those who drink too much or aren’t used to including it in their training.” This is where practicing your race day nutrition strategy can help you learn how much of these products your stomach can tolerate, as well as what brands work best for you.
5. CONSUMING TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING
It really is possible to have too much of a good thing, and for runners, this includes proteins, healthy fats and fiber. Charlebois explains that these items take longer to digest and because of that, eating too much or too soon before the start of your run may cause your stomach some added grief. Rizzo agrees and adds that in the case of fiber, too much can cause you to run for the bathroom instead of following your training route. “Try to eat less fibrous fruits and vegetables, like sweet potatoes, squash, berries and cucumbers,” urges Rizzo.
6. HAVING A CHRONIC CONDITION
An evaluation can help determine whether you have an underlying condition causing your GI distress and often, symptoms won’t appear just in your stomach. “These conditions include inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or celiac disease,” explains Strealy. “Training consistently over months or years can bring to light symptoms such as diarrhea, intestinal permeability (‘leaky gut’) or chronic immune system activation, which includes feeling sick or tired all of the time.”