Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Ask the Dietitian: Fueling runs on a sensitive stomach
What are your thoughts and advice for fueling with a sensitive stomach?
—Tanja Alsfasser, Vancouver, BC
Nothing is faster to dampen mid-run euphoria than stomach cramps. Cramping can be debilitating, painful and put an unanticipated stop to your run. If you are experiencing intestinal distress a couple times or more a week, consider the following:
1. Time it right.
Plan to wait at least two hours after eating a meal to go for a run. Some runners have stomachs of steel and can handle running shortly after lunch, but if you are one that has a sensitive stomach, you may have to wait up to four hours. Allow for as much time as needed for your food to digest.
If you prefer (or need) to run first thing in the morning, you can get away with running on an empty stomach if your run is going to be an hour or less at an easy pace. However, if you plan on a longer, more strenuous run, you might think about setting an alarm to get up to eat 2-4 hours before and then go back to bed. Eating just half a banana or sports gel right before a workout has been shown to improve stamina and performance. Liquid calories work as well, but be sure not to overdo it to avoid the annoying “water belly.” Be aware that caffeine may upset your stomach, so take it easy on (or skip altogether) the coffee.
2. Choose wisely.
Easily digested carbohydrates low in fiber are easier on your stomach pre-run than foods high in fat and fiber. Pasta, white rice, crackers, white potatoes and toast are simple sugars that do not put a lot of stress on your digestive organs prior to a run. Nut butter, fat-free yogurt and bananas have ample calories to help thwart hunger without causing intestinal distress. Plenty of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats and lean protein are necessary for a healthy runner’s diet, but save them for after your run.
3. Fuel for the distance.
A run that lasts an hour or less does not require mid-race fueling. Your breakfast and/or lunch will supply you with all the calories you need to sustain your run. Taking in extra fuel may cause an upset stomach. When you are running for an hour or longer and eating mid-run becomes necessary, remember less is more. It is not necessarily the gel or sports drink that is causing stomach cramps, but the quantity consumed.
4. Slow and steady does it.
Ever wonder how an ultrarunner can eat a burrito mid-race, but a 5K road racer can barely stomach half a banana? The faster you run, the more sensitive your stomach is likely to be. If you’re planning to do speedwork, give yourself a little more time that normal to digest your meal. If you are going long and slow, your body can digest food more easily on the run, so you may be able to get away with eating a larger meal closer to your run.
5. Hydrate well.
Dehydration can also play a role in stomach pains. Drinking too little—or too much!—before a run can off-set electrolyte balance and cause cramping. Drink consistently throughout the day so that your urine is light in color and you are urinating every 3-4 hours. Pay special attention to hydration during warmer temperatures and when visiting dryer climates, especially if not acclimated.
6. Plan your route appropriately.
If you think your tummy is going to cause trouble, plan on running a loop with a restroom on course or stick close to a trail with strategically placed port-o-potties. Knowing that you are able to stop and respond to GI distress will help ease your mind and keep you from holding it in which is extremely painful and not recommended.
7. Keep a log.
Experiment during training runs to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Write down what you eat and how you felt on your run, so you can track patterns and learn what works best for your body. The sooner you can pin-point the cause of stomach cramping, the sooner you can get back on the trails and out of the port-o-potty.
Editor’s Note: This is an installment in our online Ask the Dietitian column with Maria Dalzot, MS, RD, CDN and an avid trail runner. You can visit her blog at www.mariadalzotrd.com and submit your nutrition questions to email@example.com.