Warren Pole, ultrarunner and co-founder of natural sports nutrition company 33Shake, shares his foolproof masterplan for beating stomach trouble on the run.
Runner’s trots, poo-mergencies, call them what you will but being struck with stomach trouble when running is a big problem for far too many runners and one every runner will experience at some stage. It’s such a common issue, many runners even assume it’s just a natural part of running. It’s not, and it’s entirely avoidable.
When running, blood is diverted to the muscles and lungs to drive us on which means less blood going to our digestive system. This means digestion during running will always be harder than when we’re taking it easy on the sofa at home. As well as this, during running the stomach has to counter the stress of constant movement, another variable rarely encountered on the sofa.
Add the physical stress of pushing hard or going long into this mix and we already have the perfect storm for an urgent dash to the nearest portaloo/bush/Starbucks brewing.
Into this delicately balanced mix, the rest of the sports nutrition industry says you must now add a boatload of synthetic, sweetened, industrial powders and goop. This is stuff as far removed from actual food as its possible to get and which all too easily tips your stomach in the wrong direction at this critical time.
It’s no surprise so many athletes then suffer with stomach issues.
This is not a normal situation, in fact it’s not even necessary. Stomach trouble while running is entirely avoidable – all you need to do is follow these six simple tips:
Good hydration is at the heart of great digestion because it helps food break down and work through the system more easily. When you’re dehydrated, there’s not enough water to go round and digestion slows, which can lead to stomach trouble.
For great hydration listen to your body, drink to thirst and not to a schedule.
Drinking to thirst sounds tough in a world where sports nutritionists are lining up to provide exact timing schedules and amounts for perfect hydration, but it’s anything but.
After all, you’ve been drinking to thirst your entire life – had you not mastered this essential life skill (second only to remembering to breathe in and out), you’d be dead.
It’s drinking to schedule in fact that’s unnatural, or even worse, drinking before you’re thirsty.
Work directly to thirst – if you’re thinking about water you need to drink – and you’ll not only stay well hydrated, you’ll also beat hyponatremia where blood sodium becomes dangerously diluted thanks to over-hydration.
2 Nutritional choices
Just as a rack of sticky ribs, four mini burgers and an ice cream sundae washed down with every craft beer on the menu will leave you feeling like a sumo wrestler with narcolepsy, so the wrong food choices when running also have a huge effect on energy levels, mood and the stabilty of your stomach.
The golden rule is to prioritise 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 a ready-prepared choice try 33Shake’s Chia Energy Gels, the only natural, high-performance gel around. We developed these because as endurance athletes ourselves we couldn’t find a single gel that either worked, or wasn’t packed with dangerous junk sweeteners like maltodextrin, acesulfame k and sucralose, which can lead to stomach trouble.
The same as with hydration, food intake during exercise should also be based on hunger, not a schedule. Your body’s needs vary daily, and just as you don’t eat the exact same meals at the exact same times daily, your use of food and sports nutrition when running should be no different.
Eat to hunger and you can avoid undereating, overeating, bonking and all stomach issues. the principles behind this are the subject of a blog post on their own, which is why we wrote this one over on the blog at 33Shake. Be warned, the images here are a little graphic.
This is a big deal on race day, or at least many sports nutrition companies make it out to be. In fact it’s actually still just breakfast.
Just as you wouldn’t try and break in a new pair of trainers on race day, so you shouldn’t suddenly throw a brand new breakfast in either. So go with what you know, and if you’re traveling for your event then plan ahead and either check if the hotel you’re staying in has what you need, or be prepared to bring your own.
The only addition we’d suggest at 33Shake for race days and heavy training days, is our Pre and Post Workout Shakes. Made using the 33 most powerful superfoods for endurance performance these are designed to set your body up perfectly for the toughest efforts.
On the subject of breakfast timing, between one and two hours is the best gap between finishing a meal and running. Everyone’s different so you’ll need to experiment to find your own sweet spot but try to avoid ever going below an hour. This is where stomach trouble becomes very likely.
5 Immune function
Looking after your immune function is really important for serious performance. Nothing trashes your big race plans faster than a week shaking off a cold or bug, and any lingering illness when you do come back to running can also be a major cause of stomach trouble.
Training breaks the body down, and this includes the immune system. For all of you half marathon runners and above out there, your longer sessions are going to hit this even harder. If you’re suffering more than 2 colds a year, your immune system is not peforming as well as it should.
The food you eat is the single biggest factor you can harness to massively improve your immune system, something I can personally vouch for.
When training hard I used to catch every cold going. Someone only needed to sneeze near me on the tube and that was it. I had also been asthmatic since I was a kid – it never mattered how fit I got, I still needed my daily does of inhalers.
But since clearing up my own diet and incorporating superfoods as we developed 33Shake’s initial products back in 2012 I haven’t been ill once despite a work and training schedule that’s heavier than ever. My asthma has also gone and I haven’t touched an inhaler in years.
The Roman physician Hippocrates, considered the father of modern medicine definitely knew what he was talking about when he said: “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”
So to keep that immune system strong when you’re demanding the most from it, a great diet matters. This means tons of fresh fruit and veg, lots of water, and as little processed junk as possible along with plenty of great sleep. It really is as simple as that.
Push harder than you’ve ever been before, or hold your 8/10 pace for longer than you’ve trained for and the stress can quite easily tip your stomach over the edge resulting in emergency evacuation.
Sometimes this is okay. Nausea is part of the deal when big training goals demand your biggest efforts or an A-race target finish needs every last ounce you have.
On occasion, losing your lunch because you simply gave all you have is fine. But if this is happening more than once or twice in a season, it’s likely you’re entering dark territory. At best, you’re going to make running something you associate with pain and misery, at worst you’re going to cause unnecessary physical damage through chronic overstress.
So balance this one well and remember that gently easing down the pace slightly is a valuable tool for stopping stomach grumbles turning into major problems if they do hit.
With thanks to Liz Wiggins (@busyoutrunning) for the images of nice healthy foods.