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Eat and Run: How to Avoid Stomach Problems During a Run

by Dr. Jason Barker October 21, 2014

Eat and Run: How to Avoid Stomach Problems During a Run

Runners are no strangers to stomach problems.

In fact, the dreaded ‘trots’ are the cause of many a ruined run. But why is this so common?

In short, digestion and running just don’t go well together. Once the stomach has food in it, it sets about its job of digesting it with diligence. Part of digestion is the absorption of the now broken-down meal into the bloodstream. Hence, a tug of war develops between working muscles and the digestive tract, both of which are fighting for their share of blood flow. The muscles want the blood for the energy it contains, while the guts want the blood to absorb the newly available nutrients.

So what can you do to minimize the trots, cramps and other running-induced digestive unpleasantries? In short, think simple. You want food that is readily digested. Here are a few ‘rules’ to that end*:

*These rules pertain to foods prior to running, not all the time!

1. Food should be low in fat.

Fat takes a lot of time to digest. Incompletely digested fat makes for some pretty heinous digestive issues; i.e. flatulence and urgency. A bit of fat in your pre-race meal is ok, but it’s easy to go overboard on. Skip the greasy, cheesy, sausagey, etc. stuff!

2. Food should be low in fiber.

Fiber is of course well known for it’s bowel-movement promoting effects. Yes, fiber is good for you. But a meal with lots of fiber in it before a run or race is going to put you in the porta-potty before you can say “rapid bowel transit time”.

3. Avoid concentrated sources of sugars.

Watch out for commercial sports drinks, gels, shots and the like. While they contain plenty of energy in the form of sugars, they can be difficult for many people to tolerate. In fact if you look at the labels on many of these products, it will say something like “take with 8 ounces of water”. That’s so the sugar can be diluted – but how many of you are chugging 8 ounces of water at a time on a run?  If you don’t, you’ll end up with the osmotic effects of sugar in your gut. Translation: sugar will pull lots of water into your gut, which will cause cramping followed by an urge to have a less-than-solid BM. Not good.

4. Don’t eat a large meal – shoot for a small to moderate size meal, at most.

This one may fall into the category of “no duh” but it’s worth mentioning.  Your should have plenty of energy stored up from previous meals for your impending run, especially if it's under an hour. So don’t stress and think you need to eat a giant meal or you’ll bonk; this simply isn’t true.

5. Should contain a small amount of easily digestible protein.

A small amount of protein in the pre race meal serves a couple of purposes; it can add a little energy, and it will slow the digestion of your meal down just to a point to keep blood sugar balanced. 10 or so grams of protein powder on your hot cereal or in a smoothie are good ways to get a bit of protein in before the race.

So the key here is to eat something that’s relatively easily digested.  Think smoothies, a bagel with a thin layer of peanut butter and jelly on it, an egg and something like cream of wheat, or my personal favorite, a fruit smoothie.

If, after trying these suggestions, your digestion is still uncooperative, you may want to try supplementing with a digestive enzyme. Digestive enzymes will help your stomach do its job by breaking those foods down and making them readily available for absorption, rather than leaving them in the gut that’s now getting irritated from all the pounding and jostling of running!

The real trick is to experiment with what your body likes to have in it while you’re running.  And of course, never try a new meal on an important run or race day!

Dr. Jason Barker
Dr. Jason Barker


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