Running On Optimal Fuel: Effective Fueling Strategies For Runners

Photo: Scott Draper/Competitor

Performance Inhibitor #2: Gastric Distress

It will happen to every runner eventually: The gut-wrenching, horrifically urgent need to stop running and find a place—any place, but preferably one shielded from public view—to empty the bowels. Embarrassment aside, experiencing gastric distress on the run is a common occurrence because, well, there’s a lot of jostling. Trying to hold it until you can find the closest Starbucks or until you get home can sacrifice the quality of the run, not to mention making the remainder of the effort terribly uncomfortable.

Coping Mechanisms:

Get moving in the morning. If you hit snooze or set your alarm so you have just enough time to change and get out the door, consider this: Waking up 10 to 15 minutes earlier and move around the house—whether it’s a dynamic warm-up, walking up and down the stairs three or four times, or doing chores—can give your body enough time to push out waste.

Train your gut. While everyone’s ability to tolerate certain types of fuel differs, the body can adapt to most anything with practice. “Start small,” suggests Amy Regina, RN, of Paramus, N.J., who works with endurance athletes and fitness enthusiasts at the Hartzband Center for Wellness. “If it’s less than 30 minutes before your run, try a banana, other fruit or juice, toast and jelly or some graham crackers. These high-glycemic foods are easier to tolerate right before a workout and the body can break them down rapidly.” Regina encourages her athletes to keep food journals so they can experiment with different types and amounts of foods and fluids, and recognize patterns in how they reacted to the variables.

Choose your pre-workout fuel wisely. If you’re running aerobically for more than 60 minutes, Regina recommends eating a small, low-fat snack of easy-to-digest, refined carbohydrates and fluids to top off muscle glycogen stores before heading out, such as a plain bagel with jelly and Gatorade or fruit juice. If individuals absolutely can’t tolerate any solid food, a sports drink is better than nothing, but Regina advises these runners to ensure the meal they have the night before is carbohydrate-rich, and to consume an easy-on-the-stomach sports drink or gels during the run about once every 20 to 30 minutes. “What’s recommended is something that’s six to eight percent carbohydrates, and that’s the percentage of carbs in commonly available sports drinks like Gatorade or Accelerade,” Regina says. “It should ideally be a combination of glucose, fructose and sucrose, because if the fluids or foods you choose have too much fructose, that can be harder for some people to digest.” Regina cautions runners against watering down sports drinks because doing so can make it harder for the body to absorb the carbs.

Ease the post-race pukey feeling. If you feel nauseous as you walk through the finisher chute, congratulations—you likely threw down an honest race effort. To aid your body’s recovery mechanisms, experts agree that it’s important to consume fluids, ideally fortified with electrolytes, and eat mostly carbs and some protein within 30 minutes of finishing. However, protein is harder to digest than simple carbs, Regina says. So if a runner can’t tolerate something with protein just yet, focus on taking in fluids and refined carbs first so your body can start restocking the lost muscle glycogen. Warm chicken broth, a fruit smoothie, salted pretzels and sports drinks are good picks. As your stomach settles, try to eat half a protein bar or drink some chocolate milk, Regina’s top pick for post-race recovery.

Still suffering? Tried all the above but still experiencing constipation or diarrhea? Then you may not be getting enough soluble fiber, or you may lack the right amount of healthy intes- tinal bacteria, which aids in proper digestion. Increase your intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes and beans, and also make sure you’re drinking plenty of water. Include yogurt or other foods boosted with probiotics, or see your doctor for advice on taking a probiotic supplement. If you’re still experiencing irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, ask your doctor to order a test for Celiac disease, a disorder that inhibits the normal digestion of gluten, and something that’s under-diagnosed, according to Regina. If the test comes back negative, you may have a gluten intolerance (and not necessarily an allergy), so experiment: Cut out gluten and see if the symptoms go away, then reintroduce gluten after a time and see if the symptoms return. However, don’t be too quick to point a finger at gluten. “I do think gluten has gotten a bad rep over the past year,” Regina cautions. “For athletes, carbs are very healthy, especially for those doing distance training—carbs should be the basis of the diet.”

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