Managing a runner’s stomach

Your legs are ready after months of speedwork and long runs. Your race plan is set, your gear well-tested, your shoes broken in. You’re perfectly primed to run a great race — except for your stomach, which is roiling from some unknown source of distress.

I’ve got a wide variety of perfectly manageable, not-at-all-serious digestive issues. I’m not going to elaborate on those here, but will say only that it’s not entirely surprising that I experienced race-ruining GI issues the day of the Marine Corps Marathon Oct. 25. Here’s what is surprising: Since then, I’ve read dozens of blog posts echoing mine, with well-trained runners succumbing to similar issues despite following all the obvious advice about pre-race fuel. None of them seems to have a clue about how to prevent another such experience in the future.

I know all the obvious stuff: I shouldn’t eat or drink anything new leading up to race day, I should avoid bean burritos and chocolate chip cookies and wine the night before. My new plan: Look beyond the obvious to take my own personal nutrition plan to the next level.

A few things that seem to work:

  • I’ve got a few staples I’m pretty sure I’ll never remove from the pre-race rotation — pizza has literally been my pre-race meal for every longer-distance race I’ve completed (all but one have been free of stomach issues), and one of my first cooking experiences in high school involved a pre-race banana bread for cross country (right now, I’m loving my own version of sports dietitian Rebecca Scritchfield’s banana-pumpkin bread).
  • Eating stomach-friendly foods two days before a big race, not just Race Day Eve.
  • Eating a *small* meal or snack three hours before running. Not medium-sized, which my finicky stomach can sometimes get tripped up on. Small. Like, a single piece of banana bread and an apple.

A few pre-run breakfasts other runners have suggested:

  • Oatmeal
  • Wheat toast with natural peanut butter
  • Wheat bagel with banana and peanut butter
  • An Ensure or Boost shake
  • Cream of wheat

Here’s what I’m going to try:

  • I’m keeping a food diary tracking what I eat and how it makes my stomach feel.
  • I’m mixing up my routine to see if there are new foods to add to my repertoire. My first such experiment involved everyone’s go-to pre-run food, a bagel with some peanut butter. I visited friends in New Jersey last weekend, and enjoyed one of the Garden State’s characteristic chewy, doughy bagel smeared with peanut butter, eating half for breakfast and half with a banana for lunch. It was delicious! But when I ran about three hours afterwards, I could still kind of feel the bagel hanging around in my stomach. Next up: bananas and peanut butter, oatmeal.
  • I’m reevaluating everything I think works now. My current pre-run snacks or breakfasts involve a piece of homemade banana bread or a Luna bar and a shot of espresso with a tiny bit of milk. These have served me well for years. But does the espresso shot work because it’s a good and safe pre-race food for me, or because I’ve gotten lucky? Like a cheesy murder mystery at a small-town dinner theater, even the seemingly good guys are suspects at this point.

Which foods work for you, both the night before a race or the hours before a race or workout? Which foods definitely DON’T work for you? What steps do you take to ensure you don’t suffer GI distress on race day?

A few resources I’ve found helpful:

  • This article in the International SportsMed Journal details all the different things that can go wrong in the GI tract while distance-running.
  • This Runner’s World story details some “safe” foods, but my first experiment (see above) indicates even those will have to be carefully tested.
  • This post offers some interesting insights from a triathlete who searched for her own answers on the topic.

Coming tomorrow: my adventures in iontophoresis. I get my second treatment today, and I’ll make sure to take a picture of the magic patch of anti-inflammatory goodness to share with all of you!


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13 responses to “Managing a runner’s stomach

  1. Interesting post. I’ve had a horrible stomach for years and I know my limitations on food. I try to stick to smaller meals the whole week up to the marathon. That way you’re not overdosing 1 or 2 days before.

    Also, if I’ve eaten something during the entire training, I’m not going to stop eating it because of it being the marathon. I find – at least for me – I do worse when I take something out of my diet that has been a part of it during the entire training.

    As for night before, I stick to plain pasta and sauce. No meatballs. Nothing to even create a concern.

    Morning of? Bagel with peanut butter for a marathon.

    Doesn’t work: I can’t drink gatorade during a marathon on the course! It KILLS my stomach unless it is super watered down. I also stay away from dairy a couple of days before – that tends to hurt my stomach too. Keep it simple.

    I think it’s different things for everyone just like gu vs sportbeans, etc. during the race.

  2. Erica

    I haven’t suffered from too many running-related GI issues yet (knock wood!) – my unhappy tummy generally turns up in the last bits of a long run or right when I’m done.

    I’ve seen lots of advice about food 2-3 hours before a race… but what do I do for a half-marathon that starts at 6am? My body isn’t even used to breakfast at that hour, but I know I’m going to need fuel. I plan to be careful about getting in sufficient water and the right foods for a day or two beforehand, but what do I eat that morning?

    • I have a hard time with this, too. I have a friend who wakes up basically in the middle of the night to eat, then goes back to sleep til race time. I’m not sure I could manage the “go back to sleep” part, but it’s one idea.

  3. Coincidentally I also eat homemade banana bread before every long run and race. Also, like you, pizza is my night before meal of choice. So far so good.

  4. The diary tracking your food vs. performance is a great way to find out what works for you and what doesn’t. While training for my first marathon, I got to hear all the horror stories about GI problems and decided to do something about it. I would track what I ate throughout the day and how my performance was for the following run. The entire week before the race I stuck to my safe food and had no problems at all. That is what I love about running…learning about your body and testing your limits.

    My pre-race food stays the same…whole wheat pasta with red sauce the night before (I avoid dairy like the plague) and oatmeal with peanut butter and honey in the morning 3 hours before the start. I usually stick with water, but I always have a small glass if orange juice in the morning. I get my caffeine from my Clif Shot Bloks!

  5. Have you looked into food allergies/intolerances? Just recently I realized that I have an intolerance to gluten/wheat, after experiencing very similar GI problems.
    Though gluten might not be what you are intolerant of, it could be dairy, nuts, avocados, root vegetables, lobsters, etc etc.

  6. I eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich about 2 hours before every long run, accompanied by a cup of coffee with a small amount of milk. The coffee, ahem, gets my system moving, so I’m pretty cleared out before the run. I’ve had GI issues during shorter runs (especially the first couple of days of my cycle), but so far, I’ve never had a problem during a long run or race. I don’t follow any particular “rules” for the night before a run, but I’ve found that one beer really helps with the carbo loading.

  7. Good topic to bring up. I am training for my first 1/2 marathon and testing out foods before, during and after. I too avoid dairy like an above poster said.

  8. hope appt #2 goes well today!

    thankfully i haven’t had any issues in a race yet (knock on wood) but lately i have been getting the “runner’s trots” on my daily runs… i hadn’t thought to point the finger at what i am eating – may need to give it a review. hope your experimenting goes well and you can eliminate all the troublesome culprits.

  9. Pingback: How to run a fast 10K (I have no idea) « Amy Reinink

  10. Pingback: Managing a runner’s stomach, part deux « Amy Reinink

  11. Pingback: Runner-friendly recipe: Squashalicious pita « Amy Reinink

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