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Runner's Trots

Stomach problems can be a common issue for runners.

Chief among them are the dreaded ‘runner’s trots’ - cramping, nausea, gas and diarrhea/loose stools that come on suddenly during or immediately after a run.

Well-established causes include things like:

  • Caffeine
  • High fiber foods too close to race day
  • Sugary sports drinks
  • Food too close to the run

Generally speaking though, running and the digestive process just don’t go well together.  This is because once we’ve eaten food, the body puts digestion as its top priority.  Blood flow is redirected to the stomach and digestive tract in order to absorb those newly available nutrients.

If a person begins to exercise while they’re still trying to digest and absorb a meal, it results in a tug of war between the working muscles and the digestive tract. This can result in an incomplete and hurried digestive process.

As such, the body’s response is to ‘dump’ that digesting food and instead give priority to the working muscles. This is why a sense of urgency occurs and the immediate need to use the restroom arises.

Additionally, all the jostling and sloshing of food in the gut and GI tract also impedes the body’s ability to perform; this also results in the strong urge to remove whatever is in the lower GI tract.

All of this being said, here are a few simple rules* to follow that can help minimize those annoying runner’s trots:

*These suggestions relate to foods eaten before a run, not at all times.

1. Eat a small to moderate size meal (if that)

Sounds like common sense, but it’s always worth stating - you really don’t need that energy from a meal eaten within a few hours of a run.  Your body has plenty of energy stored up for just about any activity under 2 hours, no matter how intense. So, forget the worry that you’ll bonk if you don’t eat immediately before - it just isn’t true.

2. Avoid concentrated sugary foods

Keep an eye on commercial energy shots, gels, bars, etc.  While they’re made to deliver energy quickly, many people are sensitive to the sudden presence of sugars in their gut, which can lead to all sorts of GI trouble.  Undiluted sugar has the effect of pulling water into the gut, and this can in turn lead to bowel urgency & cramps especially when trying to run.

3. Food should be low in fat

Fat isn’t easily digested.  If you put a fair amount in your gut and then go off exercising, your stomach will revolt.  Fat that doesn’t get absorbed is probably your large intestine’s worst nightmare - it will get rid of it, pronto as soon as it shows up down there.  Skip the cheesy, greasy stuff before your run!

4. Food should be low in fiber

Fiber is great stuff of course, but it’s also well-known for its BM-producing effects. Fiber also pulls water into the GI tract and when you add that to the jostling from running, out it will come in quick fashion. Save your fiber for the meals after your runs & races!

5.  Eat a small amount of easily digested protein

A bit of protein in your pre-race meal can help in a couple of areas; it will slow the digestive process down a bit and help keep your blood sugar balanced. It’ll also provide a nice extra energy boost too. Try adding around 10 grams of protein in a smoothie or hot cereal before your next run or race.

6. Chew your food

Grannie was right, chewing your food 50 times before swallowing it will improve your digestion.  If you take a few bites and send it down, that food hasn’t been properly mixed with saliva and mechanically broken down in the mouth (where digestion really begins).  Your stomach will struggle to digest it and the result will be more bloating, gas and urgency.

The idea with all of these tips is to eat something (as your last meal, not immediately before that run) that’s easily digested.  Foods like smoothies, a bagel with a bit of nut butter and jelly, eggs or a cooked grain cereal.

Another thing to consider is to use a digestive enzyme.  Digestive enzymes help the digestive process be more efficient.  They’ll help with the breakdown  of foods so they’re more quickly digested and absorbed, instead of sitting in the gut, partially digested and going for a ride as soon as that run starts.

Probiotics are almost always a necessity when dealing with any type of digestive disturbances. Probiotics help balance and regulate a healthy gut microbiome that in turn regulates the overall digestive process. 

Lastly, consider a food sensitivity test.

Food sensitivities can contribute to a lot of gut irritability and digestive issues. Identifying and removing food sensitivities is easily done through a simple blood test (from a finger stick) that you can do at home.  Once food sensitivities are removed from the diet, quite a lot of gut sensitivity resolves.

The real trick in all of this is to experiment with what your body can tolerate while running.  It may take a bit of trial and error, but by following these suggestions you can resolve a lot of the runner’s trots!


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