How to avoid stomach trouble when running and during exercise
Today, we will be mostly dealing with puking, barfing, throwing up, blowing chunks, laying cable, getting the squits, poo-mergencies and more. Because this post is all about the messy subject of stomach trouble when running and during exercise - push your body hard enough for long enough and it’s going to happen sooner or later. The good news is, there’s no need for it to happen at all which is why we’ve put together this handy guide on how to avoid it.
When we exercise and push hard through either distance, intensity or both, the body diverts blood to the engine, in this case the muscles and aerobic system. This means less for the rest of the body, particularly the stomach. Hence digestion is going to be harder than usual from the start. Add the stress of continual movement from running or cycling and/or or the acute stress of hard muscle work and you can see there’s already a recipe for a trip to the nearest bush brewing.
Into this delicate balance, every other sports nutrition company recommends you throw a ton of synthetic, industrial powder, goo, tablets, chews and glop. Stuff so far removed from food you’d walk out of any cafe that dared serve it. Eating it during exercise is even worse and is rather like throwing a match into a firework factory.
No surprise so many athletes then suffer with stomach issues.
So here’s how to avoid them.
Avoid stomach trouble during exercise, tip 1: hydration
Let’s get back to basics and think about water in the body like oil in a car. Enough oil and your car runs as sweet as a nut, too little and it grinds to a halt. In the same way, properly hydrated your body’s looser, your muscles move more freely, and digestion is easier as food is more readily broken down and worked through the system. Dehydrated, there’s not enough water to go round and all of these process become stiffer and slower before the stomach throws in the towel.
This is why good hydration is at the heart of beating stomach issues. Listen to your body, drink to thirst and not to a schedule.
This sounds hard in a world where sports nutritionists are lining up to provide the perfect timing plans and intakes for hydration, but it’s actually very easy.
You’ve been drinking to thirst your entire life. You’d be six feet under if you’d failed to master this most basic life skill, second only in importance to breathing in and out.
The unnatural part is in fact drinking to schedule, or worse, drinking before you’re thirsty.
By working directly to thirst, not schedule, you’ll also avoid the equally unpleasant and potentially lethal hyponatremia where over-hydration dilutes the concentration of sodium in the blood to dangerously low levels.
Avoid stomach trouble during exercise, tip 2: nutritional choices
Just as you know a full Sunday roast with all the trimmings, four helpings of desert and a session at the cheese board all washed down with half the wine list are going to leave you feeling like a sumo wrestler with narcolepsy, so the wrong food choices on race day or during exercise also have a powerful effect over how you and your stomach hold up.
Wherever possible you want real food options. Natural, whole food choices that your body instantly recognises as food and knows what to do with.
Great options include bananas, nuts, homemade rice cakes as originated in the excellent Feed Zone Portables book, and salted roast potato and/or sweet potato chunks.
If you’re looking for ready-prepared options our unique Chia Energy Gels are ideal and the only natural, high-performance option out there. Developed because as endurance athletes ourselves we couldn’t find a single gel that either worked, or wasn’t packed with junk like maltodextrin, acesulfame k and more.
For a full rundown of sports nutrition ingredients which are the biggest culprits causing stomach trouble and harming both health and performancethis post explains all.
Avoid stomach trouble during exercise, tip 3: timing
Just as with water intake and hydration, your food intake during exercise should also be based on hunger and the signals your body is sending out, not a schedule. The body’s needs vary daily, and just as you don’t eat the exact same meals at the exact same times every day, your use of sports nutrition and intake of food during sport should be no different.
By eating to hunger, you can miraculously avoid undereating, overeating, bonking and, of course, all stomach issues. For a simple outline of the principles to master this skill in any race, in any conditions, at any time, this post explains the lot.
Timing is everything to avoid awkward stomach trouble when you least want it, like half way up a cliff...
Avoid stomach trouble during exercise, tip 4: breakfast
Breakfast is a big deal on race day, or at least people make it out to be. In fact it’s still just breakfast. Our advice is to always stick to your usual breakfast in the usual portions. Just as you never break in a new pair of trainers or untested kit on race day, so you shouldn’t expect your body to handle an untested breakfast either.
The only addition we’d recommend for both race days and those heavy training days, is our Pre and Post Workout Shakes. Designed to set the body up perfectly for the toughest efforts, Runner’s World magazine recommended these as the best pre-race marathon breakfast around. They’re ideal as breakfast on their own, or in addition to your usual choices.
Regarding timing, between one and two hours is the best gap between finishing a meal and starting training. Everyone’s different so you’ll need to experiment but try to avoid ever going below an hour as this is where stomach trouble becomes very likely.
One last note here, caffeine. Use and timing of caffeine for performance and a happy stomach is the subject of a blog post on it’s own, which is why we’ve written this handy one right here.
Awesome breakfast, awesome performance
Avoid stomach trouble during exercise, tip 5: immune function
The point here is that being sick in the first place is a certain cause of stomach issues when training and racing, which is why looking after your immune system matters so much.
Hard exercise breaks the body down, and this includes the immune system so even without tipping into overtraining syndrome, your body needs the best in nutrition, hydration and rest to keep that immune system strong when you’re demanding the most from it.
This means tons of fresh fruit and veg, lots of water, and as little processed junk as possible along with plenty of great sleep. This post covers all you need to know about sleep and performance, and this one goes into much more detail on immune function and exercise.
Avoid stomach trouble during exercise, tip 6: pace
Last but not least we come to pace. Push yourself harder than you’ve ever been before, or hold your 8 out of 10 pace and higher for longer than you’ve trained for and the stress can quite easily tip your stomach over the edge resulting in emergency evacuation from one end or the other.
Sometimes, nausea is part of the deal when training goals demand your biggest efforts or an A-race target needs every last ounce you have. And on occasion, this is fine.
But if you’re pushing yourself to this brink in every session, or even every race, there’s a high chance you’re entering dark territory. At best, you’re simply going to make the sport you love something you hate, at worst you’re going to cause unnecessary physical damage through chronic overstress.
Push hard, just not every time - don't forget to enjoy the ride every now and again
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