Cramping, gastrointestinal (GI) distress, nausea, vomiting: sometimes a hard workout or a tough race is memorable for all the wrong reasons. You may think these reactions are part of the endless joy of being a triathlete but there are steps you can take to limit them, or even keep them at bay.
A common problem
Exercise-induced nausea, to use the technical term, is common in endurance athletes. "There can be many causes and contributing circumstances, and there is a large component of individuality," says Australian professional triathlete and nutritionist Pip Taylor. "Everyone will react to and tolerate things
If you've taken in too much or not enough electrolytes or fluids, you may feel nauseous. "Also, drinking too much water can cause an electrolyte imbalance, which can also lead to nausea," says Taylor.
Having a race-day nutrition plan is the best step for combating exercise-induced nausea. Some athletes set their watch to beep when it's time to take in fluids. "Develop a fluid and electrolyte plan based on your sweat rate/concentration but also be prepared to be flexible and react to environmental conditions as well as how you are feeling," says Taylor.
It is important to practise your race-day plan because your body may react to the gels, bars and electrolytes you use when you are racing at a higher heart rate (race pace) than is usual when you're training. "Practise eating during training. Try to eat what and when you would during a race," recommends Taylor.
It is also important to monitor your blood sugar levels to make sure they are on an even keel. "Low blood sugar levels will leave you feeling dizzy and nauseous but eating too much will also cause you to feel sick, especially if you then try to work out or race," says Taylor.
Eating your pre-workout or pre-race meal a few hours before is also key to keeping symptoms at bay. "A high concentration or volume in the gut slows down gastric emptying, meaning you will not only feel sick but the fuel and fluids consumed will not reach working muscles anyway," says Taylor. "Give yourself time to digest and absorb your food even when you are feeling anxious."
She suggests that if you have symptoms of exercise-induced nausea, you should stick to foods you know and that are on the bland side. Another suggestion is trying a liquid meal that your stomach may be able to digest more easily.
There medicines we use every day that may also cause the nausea. "The body's systems become more sensitive to any irritants when under physical, emotional or mental stress, all of which can occur in racing or hard training," says Taylor. Taking pain-relieving drugs may also irritate the stomach before races.
The physical demands on the body on race day and your overall level of fitness may also influence your tendency to feel nauseous after or during a race.
"High-intensity efforts place the body's systems under a lot of stress and this is when you are most likely to experience nausea or sickness," says Taylor. "Being well trained helps you cope better with this physical demand."
Other influences include humidity, heat and the stress of race day. "Stress may come from performance anxiety or the physical stress of exercise on the body," says Taylor. "Both can play havoc with the gastrointestinal system and lead to symptoms of GI distress. Heat, cold and altitude can also exacerbate this stress. So stay cool and hydrated in hot conditions, wrap up when it is very cold and try to relax if you become anxious about racing."
For Joe Vrablik, a triathlete based in Boulder, Colorado, the combination of heat and humidity is his bête noire. "The majority of the time it hits me on the run," he says.
Vrablik often notices signs of impending unpleasantness late into the bike or the beginning of the run. "I can feel 'off' for a random period of time, without it going any further than that," he says. "Sometimes, though, it just hits me. If it's the early phase, a GU or some Gatorade will help settle me down," he says. "If it goes beyond that, I'll walk it out for a bit."
If no self-help remedy is working, Taylor recommends talking to a doctor or a nutritionist.