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:
- 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 competitor.com 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!