Digestive health for runners

Digestive Health for runners


Endurance running is a curious sport, and non-runners are often at a loss as to why on earth anyone would engage in such a punishing pastime. Blisters, chafing, dehydration, exhaustion, early morning training runs … and let’s not forget the other kind of runs. Runners often suffer from gastrointestinal (GI) distress when participating in marathons, triathlons, Ironman races or other ultra-endurance events. These complaints range from nausea to cramping to diarrhoea, and none of them are fun. So what’s the deal with runners’ tummies? And how can athletes prevent these unpleasant side effects of their chosen sport?


It’s becoming clear that the health of your gut is tied closely to the health of your brain, as the gut–brain axis is studied more and more closely. Unbalanced gut microbiota can affect your mood and outlook, as well as your immune function. These are pretty big areas of concern for many people, so it’s worth taking a closer look at interventions that may help keep things moving along smoothly.


Your gut microbiome isn’t the only thing that suffers when your GI tract is out of whack. Athletes suffering from intestinal distress of any kind were less likely to drink or refuel adequately (because they felt awful), which messes with their energy balance and hydration. Hint: dehydration is a contributing factor for GI distress. It’s a vicious cycle.


It looks like GI complaints related to endurance training and competing are caused by a few things, all of them closely intertwined. Extreme (and not-so-extreme) training regimens appear to increase gut permeability, which affects nutrient absorption. Even running for 60 minutes without adequately replenishing fluids can compromise your gut health. Ultra-marathoners know that all the jostling that goes along with running can result in blood loss in the intestines. There’s no dietary intervention for jostling, but I hear there’s a low-impact endurance trainer on the market …


But is it only the impact-heavy extreme training? Competitive endurance athletes also tend to adhere to extreme diet plans, which could also be a contributing factor. Runners who consume a fibre-rich meal before competing are setting themselves up for cramps (so lay off the hummus for a day or so before your marathon), while in-race beverages and gels can help to reduce stomach upset, depending on their ingredients list. Carbohydrate drinks and gels that contain both glucose and fructose seem to be the way to go.


Once thought to be the cause of runner’s diarrhoea, restricted blood flow to the internal organs doesn’t seem to be a contributing factor, at least according to one study. It looks like the big picture of gut health for endurance athletes may be a lot more complicated than it appears at first blush. Marathon runners, for example, have better gut motility than their untrained counterparts, so it’s possible to bring your insides up to speed with your outsides and avoid uncomfortable consequences. One strategy for avoiding stomach upset at a critical moment is to incorporate your race foods into your training runs. This approach has two benefits: one, you’ll discover in a low-stress environment how your body responds to any new supplements or recovery beverages, and, two: practising with your preferred fuels allows your guts to adapt to absorbing them effectively.


Supplementing with probiotics seems to hold promise for distance runners as well. Probiotics and prebiotics have a well-established reputation for promoting healthy intestinal activity, but that benefit may translate to athletic capacity as well. Runners were able to last longer, in a test where they ran on a treadmill to exhaustion in hot conditions, after supplementing with probiotics for 4 weeks. In another study, runners were able to run faster after supplementing with either prebiotics or probiotics. It makes sense; if your guts are healthier, they’re able to absorb more of the nutrients from the food you eat, resulting in a better-fuelled you. When your physical machine has the building blocks it needs, it will deliver you better race results.


Watch out for mouthwash, however: your saliva is an important part of the digestive process, and if you kill the microbes in your mouth with mouthwash, you won’t reap the benefits of all that beet juice you’ve been drinking. It looks like your mouth is a really important part of your digestive chain, microbes aside. Endurance athletes are able to run faster, for longer, when they swish (but don’t swallow) a glucose solution regularly throughout a time trial. If you can avoid pouring the glucose solution down your front, that’s just a bonus.


Take a look at your diet and see if it’s got enough yogurt, kefir and fermented foods to support a healthy gut microbiome. Those little bugs in your guts are more important than you might think. Beyond keeping you from an embarrassing situation during a race, your microbes may be an overlooked training tool; feed them well!
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