Have you ever been in the middle of a run and realize that you must find a bathroom ASAP? You are not alone, most runners share this frustration. Many runners have found that they develop “stomach issues,” such as nausea, food intolerances, cramping, gas, reflux and diarrhea, also known as “runner’s trots.”
Why does this happen? Contributing factors include the physical jostling of the organs, decreased blood flow to the intestines, changes in intestinal hormone secretion, increased amount or introduction of a new food, and pre-race anxiety and stress. During runs, the gastrointestinal system prioritizes blood flow toward your muscles and shunts blood away from your GI tract. When the blood flow to your digestive tract is reduced, it can be difficult to handle fluids and fuel during hard and long efforts.
How to train your gut to avoid the porta-potty on race day
GI distress can often happen at different times during a run and for different reasons. If runner’s trots are occurring later in the run or after taking a gel/energy bar, the distress may be related to the high concentration of carbs/electrolytes in your stomach. The stomach tends to digest better when diluted, which is why some people tolerate a sports beverage better than gel. Make sure to drink water immediately after taking a high concentration of carbohydrates, such as gel/blocks/beans.
- Common Culprits
Everyone is different, but there are some common causes for most people. Common culprits include caffeine, high fiber, alcohol (from the night before), high fructose corn syrup, etc. The best way to detect food triggers is by keeping a food and bowel movement journal. Note: It takes between 24 and 72 hours for food to move from gut to toilet for the average person (runners tend to be on the faster side). Don’t forget to look at the ingredient lists.
- Smaller may be better
You may be able to tolerate small amounts of fuel/food, such as one chew every so often, rather than one gel every 4-6 miles. Try to take in small amounts of fuel, yet while still meeting your carb needs by fueling early and often. And if you consistently fuel early (and often) during training, your gut will become accustomed. Also, try to experiment with having small meals throughout the day, and more snacks.
You may want to wait 2-3 hours after eating before running. Running in the morning? Stick to something bland and easy to digest, such as toast or light granola bar. Race day/long runs: Aim for your largest meal in the middle of the day before vs dinner.
Establish a routine. Try getting up 3 hours before race start in order to eat and go to the bathroom.
Before, during and after running, drink plenty of fluids. Dehydration can lead to diarrhea. Avoid warm liquids, however, which can speed food through the digestive tract.
- Expand your horizons
Many runners find that their GI distress goes away when they switch fuel sources. There are so many gels, beans, chews, blocks, bars, and drinks on the market. Experiment different forms and sources during training. Remember, never try something new on race day! (Try to experiment with fuel that is provided on the race).
- What are you wearing?
Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing during exercise. Clothing that’s too tight around the waist may aggravate diarrhea.
Avoid nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen (Aleve). Both have been shown to increase the incidence of gastrointestinal complaints.
- Be Prepared
Sometimes you can do all of the above, yet still have problems. To best avoid embarrassment: Plan and be prepared. Review the racers guide and know where all the bathrooms are on the course. If you want to be extra prepared, you can always bring toilet paper!
Additional nutritional tips
- At least one day before running, limit or avoid high-fiber and gas-producing foods, such as beans, bran,, fruit and salad. If you run every day, experiment to find a tolerable level of fiber. Otherwise, simply eat those foods after you run.
- At least one day before running, limit or avoid sweeteners called sugar alcohols (isomalt, sorbitol, others) — most often found in sugar-free candies, gum and ice cream.
- Avoid high fat foods the meal before, even the night before your run: peanut butter, butter, fried foods, pastries, high fat cream sauces, pizza, etc.
- Limit or avoid caffeine before a run.
This was put together by Kelsae Fitzpatrick, a Registered Dietitian at UP Health System-Portage. She is passionate about sports nutrition and is currently training to complete her first Ironman this summer. If you are interested in making an appointment to see a dietitian, please contact their scheduler at (906) 483-1253 for more information.