Updated: Jan 3
How to properly navigate and avoid tummy trouble in endurance performances.
Every runner or endurance athlete knows the overwhelming discomfort that can arise from GI issues. For many they come on unexpectedly and often very inconveniently. From my own personal experience trail running, I know these issues can be more than enough to ruin a beautiful day in the mountains and can occasionally even lead to some awkward situations… uh oh.
However, what many of us may be unaware of is that there are some very effective ways to avoid these unintended consequences. Keeping track of what we consume before, during and after exercise as well as how we train our stomachs during these jolting activities can make a world of difference. It may seem hard to discover exactly what your personal triggers are but through conscience effort and experimenting you can be avoiding the toilets and instead crossing the finish line in no time.
Let’s first look at our bodies and how the process of digestion works, since that is afterall the underlying influence here. Digestion is a north to south process, what goes in will eventually come out, but what happens in those intermediate stages is absolutely crucial to our GI health and performance. Once we consume any food and/or beverage it enters into our stomach to further chemical and mechanical breakdown. The speed at which the food then moves from the stomach into the small intestine is called gastric emptying. This process is so important because for any liquid or food to be beneficial it must first empty from the stomach and then be absorbed into the bloodstream through the small intestine. Many factors, such as hydration status, concentration of the liquid, volume, caloric density, temperature of the liquid, as well as external temperature and exercise intensity, influence the gastric emptying rate (katz, 2019). The speed of this process is essential because when gastric emptying occurs too fast there is not enough time for nutrients to be properly absorbed and utilized. On the other hand, when it is delayed, GI distress, such as nausea and vomiting, are likely to occur.
So what can we do to achieve optimal gastric emptying during exercise?
While it may seem complicated, there are quite a few easy alterations we can make to avoid those bothersome GI burdens. The first step is hydration. Proper hydration should be achieved and maintained days before the performance event takes place. Delayed gastric emptying can be a direct result of dehydration(Active, 2019). Proper hydration prior to exercise is essential. During exercise a fluid mixture of water and 3-4% mixed carbohydrate (glucose/sucrose) and the electrolyte minerals should be sipped on in small doses consistently. Ensuring that you use not just water but also including electrolyte minerals in a solution such as this ensures proper hydration and helps replenish these minerals which are lost through sweat.
The next step is avoiding certain foods (in the hours to days) before the performance. This is where experimenting during training to find your specific triggers comes in. The most common avoidances would look like:
- high-fiber foods, in the one to two days before competition. These can add too much bulk as well as causing bloating and irritation to the intestinal lining.
-fats, milk products and high-fructose foods in the hours before competition. These foods can be harder for the stomach to digest and can contribute to delayed gastric emptying.
-NSAIDS and other painkillers which can be damaging to the intestinal lining and permeability.
The third step here is training. Just like you must train your muscles and cardiovascular system, you also must train your gut. It is important to incorporate into your training whatever kind of hydration and nutrition you plan on using in your races. This allows the stomach to become accustomed to nutrition during performance and may even allow for increased rate of gastric emptying (Murray, 20016).
Putting these recommendations into play, with consideration for each person's own unique biology, can be just the formula needed in discovering the root cause of performance related GI issues. Through proper hydration and nutrition, understand and avoiding triggers, and stomach training, you can be back to spending your performance time doing just that, performing!