Runner's digest: 5 ways to beat GI problems

Changing what – and when – you eat can halt all kinds of on-the-move gut problems.


by Ruth Emmett, Liz Applegate
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If your stomach has ever seized up mid-race, you’re not alone. According to the International Journal of Sports Medicine, 80 per cent of marathon runners will have some kind of gastrointestinal problem. Here’s how to get over your GI troubles.

1 FIBRE FIX

Fibre, a vital indigestible carb, helps bulk the gut. But sports dietician Becky Stevenson often puts her elite athletes on a reduced-fibre diet a couple of days before a big race. Why? “Too much fibre causes bloating, wind and the runners’ trots – that sudden mid-race urge to visit the loo,” she says.

Food fix: Two days before a race, opt for cornflakes, Rice Krispies and white bread rather than high-fibre wholemeal. Runners with very severe GI problems might substitute a meal replacement shake or fruit smoothie for breakfast. 

2 THINK SMALL

If your chest burns as you run, you may have been overloading with large meals. These can trigger heartburn, according to nutritionist Liz Applegate. Between-meal soft drinks and chewing gum add to your pains – they make you swallow extra air, leading to cramps and belching.

Food fix: Have regular, small meals, sit down and take the time to chew. “Don’t lie down afterwards – it can prompt heartburn,” says Applegate. “Also, avoid acidic trigger foods like mint and curry.” 

3 BE PRO-ACTIVE

If digestive discomfort strikes even on rest days, it could be irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). “I’ve seen more IBS cases recently, maybe because stress and poor quality food is changing our gut profiles,” says Stevenson. “Running then upsets an already sensitive gut.” Strike a better balance by taking on probiotics, or good bacteria.

Food fix: It would take a lot of probiotic drinks for an effective dose, so Stevenson recommends taking supplements in powder or tablet form instead. If your doctor prescribes antibiotics, ask for a follow-up course of probiotics, too.

4 QUENCH YOUR THIRST

Your rehydration strategy might be to blame for a cramped, churning bellyache after a long run. “Runners get in trouble by drinking too much or too little water – or water that’s too cold,” says sports therapist Dr Ralph Rogers. You typically need 700-800ml of fluid per hour of exercise, although this varies widely. Be wary of sweet, fizzy sports drinks – fructose sugar and carbon dioxide can irritate a sensitive gut.

Food fix: Test out different hydration strategies and experiment with powdered or homemade sports drinks. If you rely on ready-made drinks, Stevenson recommends unscrewing the top so the fizz escapes before you run. 

5 ELIMINATE INTOLERANCE

Some people lack the enzymes to digest certain foods, like dairy or gluten. A doctor can confirm your diagnosis, but in the meantime, if you suffer from excessive bloating and pain, start looking for alternatives. “For example, I prefer soya to milk in a protein shake,” says Rogers. “And most people will find skimmed easier to digest than full-fat.”

Food fix: Try an elimination diet for a couple of weeks, cutting out all possible problem foods in favour of very basic meals. When you gradually add the suspect foods back into your diet, keep a note of any symptoms. 


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