Ask any runner about their worst case scenario when it comes to racing or long runs, and chances are it will be something related to gut. Anything like nausea, unexpected bathroom trips, cramps, or inability to keep down fuel and liquids can derail race day or long run plans in a hurry (no pun intended).
And while it inevitably happens to us all at some point or another, having it occur regularly or on every long run and race can be really discouraging. Running (and endurance based physical activity in general) can be hard on the gut, often partly to blame for the issues, especially when it comes to longer distances or longer times spent out running, but there is also lots you can do to minimize your chance of distress. Here’s a breakdown on what is happening, and what you can do about it as well as a recipe to make your own mid-run fuel:
What is happening? While sometimes gut issues relate to consumption of certain foods or certain categories of foods or timing of food consumption as related to running, there are two main physiological issues which may be at play:
- Increased motility – The motion of running, the movement of the body and the increase in physical activity stimulates movement within the body, moving digested matter along through the intestines. The physical activity also causes a surge in hormone release which naturally stimulates increased motility within the digestive tract. Either of these encourage things to move along . . .
- Activation of the sympathetic nervous system, yielding decreased activity – On the opposite side, the digestive system may have its activity inhibited. Physical activity is a physical stress to the body, and stress activates the sympathetic nervous system. When this system is activated, it shuts down the digestive system, and as such, can cause issues such as cramping, bloating, indigestion and gas.
What can I do about it?
- Evaluate your pre and post run food – It may not even be what you are eating during your run as much as it is what you are eating before your run – immediately before and the day before. A sluggish digestive tract means you may be slow to empty food out of your stomach, leading to it still being there when it is time to run. Certain categories of food – mainly fat, protein and complex carbohydrates – are digested more slowly and hence could cause issues if you run too soon after consumption. Likewise, depending on the consumption of liquid with the food and the efficiency of digestive enzymes, you may have food ending up slowly digested. Start to keep a food diary: make note of what you eat, what time you eat it, and when you run relative to this. See if you notice patterns in regards to eating certain foods or eating at certain times and how this impacts your run.
- Improve your overall gut health – The issues associated with your gut may not be running specific – you may simply have a compromised gut that is reacting or becoming overly irritated during running. To address overall gut health, increase your intake of probiotic rich foods such as fermented vegetables and all natural yogurt. Consume foods that promote healthy gut lining, such as Slippery Elm Powder and licorice powder. You can also increase your intake of turmeric and anti-inflammatory foods, and consume mucilaginous foods such as oatmeal and eggplant.
- Experiment with fuel – This includes both your hydration and calorie fuels and before, during and after your runs. Some people do better with solid fuels, like energy Bloks, while others do better with liquids and gels. Likewise, some people are only affected by gut related issues when there is too much liquid consumed, while others need the liquid to keep things stable in there. It is also important to consider what you are eating before your run: having the wrong thing in your stomach at the start may be the culprit, or what you are eating after your run may be setting you up for bad news in tomorrow’s miles.
- Make your own fuel – Just like when you eat food during non-running times, sometimes specific foods and ingredients aggravate the gut more. This is especially relevant when the gut is already in a compromised state, as is the case mid run, with a heap of miles under your belt and a whole lot left to go. While there are lots of natural fuel products available, sometimes the best way to make sure your fuel is on point and your gut is too, is to make your own run fuel. This can be in the form of gels or bites, or can even be things like dates. I’ve been making my own fuel for the last 2 – 3 years and to be honest, I love how it tastes so much, that sometimes when my run sucks, I just keep telling myself how far I have to go until I get to eat some of it! While I change up the flavors regularly, here’s a good fuel blueprint for making your own:
- Include a complex and simple carbohydrate – the complex one gets stored for you to keep fuelling you throughout the race, while the simple one is accessed right away. For me, this is typically dates and brown rice syrup respectively.
- Add salt – Adding salt to my fuel has made a big difference and is important for helping maintain fluid balance and electrolytes in your body. Having this in your fuel avoids the need for sugary Gatorade drinks on the course as well! I typically add Pink Himalayan Salt
- Use coffee – In the week or two prior to the race, I go off coffee. On race day, I have a coffee before I run and my fuel also has coffee in it. The result? My body is more sensitized to caffeine from my two week hiatus and I get a nice energy boost as a result. If you are not used to having coffee before or during your runs, make sure to experiment with this, as for many people, it can be irritating to the gut.
- Add fat – I don’t add a lot, such that it is going to make my system sluggish (fat is slower to digest), but just enough that it will be used by the brain. It is in line with the whole Bulletproof coffee phenomenon, whereby the brain converts the fat to ketones, increasing alertness and brain function. Given how much of racing and running is mental based, this can only be a good thing! My go to sources include Brain Octane Oil, Coconut Oil, or my homemade brain boost pumpkin seed butter.
- Make it taste good – If your fuel tastes delicious, you will want to eat it and it will be like a little treat for you on the course! I add cacao to make it chocolate or mocha, or add some vanilla to make it caramel. You can also use peanut butter and make Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup gel.
Ready to give it a try? Here is a recipe for my go to fuel! It makes a big batch, so freeze whatever you don’t need into small bags for future long runs and races or simply spread onto baking paper and put in the freezer to cut up as freezer fudge.
Ultimately it comes down to figuring out what works best for you in terms of pre and post race fuel, as well as your fuelling strategy during the race. Take some time during your training to try everything out and experiment with different options to minimize the chance of problems on race day. Still having problems? Send me an email and I’m happy to help!
What are some of your tips for avoiding race day GI distress?