On a crisp autumn afternoon, my legs whisked me along the trail. It was blissful running perfection… until it wasn’t. I felt a telltale rumble in my stomach, but the bathrooms were locked for the season. I slowed to a walk, too late. Thankfully, nobody witnessed my re-enactment of that Bridesmaids scene before I hobbled home, hopped in the shower fully clothed and promptly trashed my leggings.
The experience might be familiar if you tend to push through long, tough workouts. After all, discomfort and surprise urges can pop up at any time. “The intensity and duration of the workout are the two important variables associated with gastrointestinal symptoms,” says Manasi Agrawal, an assistant professor of gastroenterology and a marathon runner. “When we’re exercising, blood flow tends to get shunted toward the exercising muscles and the skin for temperature regulation, and away from the GI tract. When blood flow isn’t adequate, it affects GI tract movement and its capacity to absorb nutrients.”
High-impact activities like running tend to elicit more severe gut symptoms due to their intensity. The good news? More seasoned exercisers deal with fewer GI emergencies, which means training your tum is possible – and being intentional with your nutrition and fluid intake during workouts helps optimise performance, per research in Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. These tricks from the pros will have you chasing PBs (instead of public bathrooms).
Finally, a comprehensive training guide that’s tailored to your gut. Relief, right this way.
If You Feel Nauseous AF…
Queasiness and/or vomiting can be traced to multiple issues, including dehydration, mid-workout intake of hypertonic fluids (anything with a higher concentration of salt and other electrolytes than is found in normal cells and blood), going overboard on chews or gels, ingesting too much caffeine, and stress or anxiety. Given the slew of possible causes, nausea and vomiting are complex symptoms to address, says Patrick Wilson, an associate professor of exercise science and author of The Athlete’s Gut. To calm those stormy seas, Wilson recommends getting a handle on stress, changing your pre-exercise food intake and using cooling tactics while working out. Zone out with a few minutes of box breathing (inhale for two secs, hold your breath for two, exhale for two, hold for two, repeat – working up to four- or eight-sec box breaths) before a sweat. To help keep your temp regulated, dip into a tub of icy water pre-workout and have a cold beverage on hand. As for food? Try eating something different beforehand to see if that makes an immediate difference. Once you’ve landed on a pre-workout eat that works, test and re-test your nutrition plan with different workouts until you feel confident in a food match. (Do this well in advance of a race or one-off fitness event – it usually takes a few weeks to figure out.)
If symptoms continue or worsen, check in with your doc or a gastroenterologist.
No gut probs? Continue to nurture a healthy microbiome so you never experience them. That means sticking to a regular sleep, bathroom and eating routine so your system remains reliable. Also, eat a diet with enough fibre (guidelines recommend 25g daily) from whole-food sources to feed gut bacteria, says exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist Stacy T. Sims. The result is a healthier, consistent GI system, with less inflammation, to support your fitness goals.
If Heartburn Strikes…
Feeling the fire in the wrong spots? Reflux during exercise can mimic breathlessness or chest constriction. Higher-intensity exertion can trigger heartburn for some people. For others, it may be a result of eating high-fat foods or excessive carbs right before or during a workout. If you regularly get reflux, skip acid-increasing eats like chocolate, citrus, chilli and coffee close to exercise time. And don’t stuff yourself pre-workout. A bellyful of food will slosh around until your body can focus on digestion, says dietitian Ryan Turner.
If Cramps and Bloating Slow You Down…
Cramps can stop you in your tracks and are another side effect of paused digestion while exercising; certain foods or poorly absorbed nutrients can cause excess gas production in the gut. Midsection aches can also pop up if you regularly use NSAIDs (like ibuprofen) for pain relief and recovery. Avoid heavy foods a few days before a big workout as they can slow gut movement. Bacteria ferment these items in the intestines, producing gas and the uncomfortable balloon-feels. And cut back on pill popping for every little ache. When used frequently, NSAIDs can cause more serious issues, like ulcers. Reduce your use or switch your pain reliever of choice and modify your nutrition to allow cramps to cool off.
If it’s Bathroom Emergencies…
Your GI tract can only handle so much activity when you’re, say, crushing a cycling day or in the midst of a long run. Don’t overdo it beforehand on carbs (especially complex ones like grains and starchy vegies), which your gut may not be able to properly break down. When it comes to workout fuel, “Gels or drinks that have 5 to 8 per cent max of simple sugars are well tolerated… anything more concentrated can lead to extra
GI distress,” says Agrawal. Find your fuel sweet spot by testing combos of easily digestible simple sugars (like glucose and fructose) and recording your post-sweat reactions. After a few weeks, if you’ve had predictable bathroom trips, Turner says, then you’ve found a trustworthy energy source.
Stretch for Success
The digestive system is nicknamed the second brain, so it should come as no surprise that the mind-body benefits of yoga can also soothe the GI tract. Practising yoga lowers cortisol levels, which contributes to smooth moves all around, says Jessica Moy, a yoga teacher and physical therapist. This flow goes a step further by manually stimulating the gut to keep you regular. Do poses on both sides.
1/ Revolved Chair
Look above top elbow. Hold for three to five breaths.
2/ Seated Twist
Gaze in direction of rotation. Hold about one minute.
3/ Reclined Supine Twist
Let the leg fall across you, and hold for three to five minutes.
Lie relaxed on back for a few minutes until completely still.
This article was first published in womenshealth.com.au