Figure Out Your Stomach Troubles

Gastrointestinal (GI) distress and bathroom issues are very common among runners, yet we don’t talk about it as much as we probably should. Think about it, from the time you are a child you are advised to wait 30 minutes to two hours after eating before exercising in order to avoid cramping, right? Yet, when doing a long run, you need to eat before and during the run. So, is it any surprise you struggle sometimes?

When you are active, especially for long periods of time, blood is shunted away from your internal organs and muscles and re-directed to the working muscles to provide them with enough nutrients and oxygen to continue running. Reduced blood flow to the GI tract compromises its ability to function normally, making digestion difficult for many. Just understanding that your GI system is compromised during a run can help by simply changing your expectations.

The general guideline for run nutrition has been to ingest 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate every hour after the first hour. Recently though, these guidelines have been challenged. Current studies seem to indicate that this amount of carbohydrate fueling often results in GI distress. Since there are no firmly set guidelines, it means you must experiment for yourself to find what works. Figuring out what works for you is essential, so here are some suggestions.

First, start your long run morning off by eating a pre-run breakfast, like toast or bagel with peanut butter, or an energy bar and water. This serves two purposes; it gives you fuel and keeps blood flow going to your GI system in order to digest this food. The goal is to keep your GI system open and working even when running, so having food in your system minimises the amount of blood flow that gets diverted. Then, begin taking nutrition or a sports drink early on in your run, again the purpose being to keep your GI system open and working. The longer into your run you wait to start nutrition, the more blood flow will have been diverted away and the more compromised digestion becomes. Experiment with taking some nutrition about 20 minutes into your run and every 20 to 30 minutes thereafter.

Second, try consuming as little as possible of a supplement at one time. Start with the low end of the general recommendation – 30 grams of carbohydrate or less. Sometimes it is not the supplement itself but rather, the quantity consumed that causes the distress. Try taking half or one-third of the packaged product, or a small mouthful rather than the entire package. When taking a smaller amount of a supplement, plan on taking it more frequently, usually every 20 minutes or so. Ingesting a smaller amount more frequently may help reduce your GI distress.

Third, never pair a run nutrition supplement with a sports drink. Too much carbohydrate is a sure recipe for GI disaster. Always wash down any run nutrition with water only, not a sports drink. A sports drink is a dilute carbohydrate itself, containing about 15 grams of carbohydrate per 250mL of liquid; whereas a gel is a more concentrated carbohydrate at about 30 grams of carbohydrate in 30mL. You can alternate run nutrition and sports drink during a run, but avoid taking them at the same time.

Another option worth experimenting with is using something other than the traditional gu’s or gels. Raisins and other dried fruits like cherries and cranberries are comparable to commercial carbohydrate supplements. Honey packets or sugar cubes are also options and may work better for you than a gel. Hard candies, animal crackers, peanut or crispy M&M’s and gummy bears are also favourites of many runners. A savory or salty snack can also be a nice change.

Keep in mind that sports drinks and run nutrition supplements provide electrolytes in addition to carbohydrate, so if you are using an alternative snack you may need to also take an electrolyte supplement.

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