Winning The Intestinal Race
It’s race day. Whether this is your first 5K or your 10th marathon, it’s likely your nerves are on edge and extra adrenaline is flowing through your veins. While this might hype you up for the distance ahead, it typically brings unwanted intestinal distress. No matter what you do or how much you’ve prepared, it seems to happen every race day. Sound familiar?
Dialing In On The Causes
Many physiological factors come into play on race day, making it harder for your intestines to keep up. To start, you are running a long distance at a likely faster pace than normal. This “jostling” of the intestines combined with higher-intensity exercise is first to blame. When you exercise at higher intensities, blood flow is diverted from the digestive tract to the working muscles, making it harder for the body to digest and absorb food. Dehydration also plays a role because the thicker the blood, the harder it is to get through your veins. Think of it like pouring water versus a smoothie through a funnel—the smoothie moves slower.
Next, foods that are normally easy to digest can become irritants to your gut when running. Things like coffee and fruit can often contribute to diarrhea. While coffee might pick your pace up, it also stimulates stomach acid production, which can lead to indigestion and nausea. Fruit, on the other hand, consists of the sugar fructose, which is slower-digesting than glucose and can lead to bloating, cramping and unwanted GI issues for many runners.
Finally, whether you are walking into a job interview or to the start line of a race, adrenaline and nerves can get your digestive tract in knots fast. One explanation is that there are serotonin and other neurotransmitter receptors in the gut, so when your body is experiencing anxiety, it’s likely receiving chemicals that tell it to respond with that upset feeling. So is there any relief for race-day intestinal issues?
Finding The Solutions
While you may never be 100 percent free of GI issues on race day, there are some things you can do to minimize the distress. First, wake up a few minutes earlier and do some light exercises to empty the gut before heading out. Spending a few minutes stretching, doing yoga and breathing can also help you mentally prepare and reduce stress.
Paying attention to your nutrition choices in the 24 hours leading up to a race can also help reduce the risk of intestinal issues. Keep these few tips in mind:
- Decrease your fiber intake pre-race. While typically you should eat a fiber-rich diet, fiber adds fecal bulk and thus speeds up how quickly it moves through your body, which can lead to frequent bathroom visits. Pass on the Brussels sprouts at the pre-race dinner, and skip the bran cereal before your run.
- Watch your fructose intake. If you have a sensitive digestive tract, be sure your gels, chews, sports drinks and snacks aren’t overloading you with fructose and leading you to frequent pit stops. Practicing with different sports foods and beverages on long run days can help you determine what your gut can tolerate.
- Avoid “sugar-free” foods leading up to the race. Sugar alcohols found in many sugar-free foods, can contribute to diarrhea for many individuals.
- Start hydrated. Dehydration can thicken the blood and exacerbate intestinal issues along the way. Monitor urine color to ensure you are well-hydrated pre-race.
- Keep a diary. Paying attention to the foods that cause GI distress on practice days can help you fine-tune your race-day fueling strategies.
If all else fails, talk to your doctor about a digestive aid, but you might be surprised what solutions you can find with a little experimenting.