Dehydration and GI Distress For Runners

Staying hydrated can usually combat the GI distress that runners experience. Photo: www.shutterstock.com

It’s usually a lack of fluids, not the food you eat, that leads to GI problems.

If you’re turning to food for the answers to your GI distresses during hard workouts and long runs, chances are your focus is diverted from the real culprit: fluids. More correctly, a lack of fluids.

Dehydration during taxing long runs and hard workouts leads to a lot of the excruciating stomach problems runners experience both during, and immediately following, their runs.

When running, the body’s main focus becomes supplying the muscles and lungs with oxygenated blood. In doing so, blood is diverted away from the stomach and intestines as the fatiguing runner’s body puts digestion on the back-burner.

That lack of adequate blood flow alone causes minor damage to the delicate intestinal tissues; but, if an athlete is dehydrated, even mildly, this can set the stage for a GI nightmare. Performance nutritionist to the elites Krista Austin Ph.D, sums it up: “If you get dehydrated you can’t eat because you need blood flow into the stomach to digest.”

“I had GI problems for the longest time after I moved to Boulder and I couldn’t figure out why,” professional runner Molly Pritz said. “I was eating what I always had and my stomach was still acting like a runner newbie since my first tempo run up here. It turns out that I was dehydrated the moment I came to altitude and my stomach showed the results.”

RELATED: Hydration: The Key To Successful Performance

When she figured out what the problem was—fluids, not foods—Pritz was back on track.

“I needed more than just water and I started drinking [a sports drink] to get the hydration, salt, and electrolytes, and my stomach has been cooperating ever since,” Pritz said.

The problem with dehydration and GI distress is that it becomes a vicious cycle. In order to hydrate a runner needs to consume, and keep down, fluids. But, without the necessary blood blow, an athlete’s stomach rejects those fluids by sending them up or down.

Not entering that cycle to begin with is a runner’s only solution. “Hydration before the point of dehydration is KEY for successful training,” Pritz said. “Once you get dehydrated or depleted, it becomes impossible to crawl out of the hole in which you find yourself in.”

Austin worked with Kara Goucher in solving her own GI nightmares. In moving to the marathon, Goucher was having a really difficult time keeping fuel down. “Sometimes [not getting nutrients in] is unavoidable because they get nauseous … but that’s usually because of dehydration solely,” Austin said. “So you need to time your fluids just like you would your nutrients.”

Realize the important role hydration is playing in your problems and then adopt a personal fluid regime. It’s paramount that runners stay properly hydrated throughout the day and entering into your hard workouts or long runs, as that is where no amount of ‘back-loading’ can be made up. Once the body has entered this vicious cycle, coming out is infinitely harder, or impossible, to do.

Molly Pritz’s Tips for a Winning Hydration Regime

Take 10 For 5
“I take 10 ounces of liquid and 100 calories of sports drink for every 5K of hard effort I run. It makes sure that I am never too depleted to recover and run at my best pace.”

Pee Clear
Ideally, a runner should have urine that is near clear. Pritz checks hers each morning. “If I wake up dehydrated the morning of a workout, I already know it’s going to be an uphill battle for successful paces.” If she does notice too dark a shade she makes a point to get up early to consume extra amounts of a low-calorie sports drink.

RELATED: Daily Hydration Essentials

Heat x 2
Hot and humid temperatures call for Pritz to double her entire fluid intake, “As much water as you think you need in a hot or humid situation, you will probably need to double that amount.”

Disregard The Hype
“It is rare for a highly-trained athlete to be overly-hydrated and very common for us to wake up dehydrated. Recovery takes place while we are sleeping and it takes a lot of water for our metabolic processes to help our body to recover, and water and salt is key to recovery.”

More Than Water

These days, runners are aware that water should make up only a portion of the fluids they need to be taking in. The rest are electrolytes, with two of the most important being salt and potassium.

Getting “overly-hydrated” actually means that the body is too dilute of these electrolytes; that is, that the water content of the blood-stream is too high and the percentage of electrolytes is too low. That is why choosing a sports drink containing these essential electrolytes is imperative; however, not all runners need the excess sugar and carbohydrates. Unless you’re training for a marathon or need the extra energy, opt for one of the lower calorie drinks.

GI And Post-Run Refuel

GI problems following your long or hard runs pose another problem: missing that important 30-minute refuel window. Taxed muscles are not given the nutrients necessary to aide recovery simply because the runner is too nauseous to take anything in. Once again, the answer is staying hydrated from the get-go, so you finish a workout without the nausea or multiple trips to the bathroom.

RELATED: The 10 Best Carb Sources For Runners

At times, a certain degree of stomach upset comes with the territory. For these times a runner must experiment to find foods that work for them, often a carb/protein-containing drink or a bar may do the trick.

“Biscuits are my standby, but find your own standby,” Pritz said.

What the human body, with all of its functions, is capable of is quite remarkable; but what a competitive runner demands from his or her body is nothing short of extraordinary. Until evolution can keep pace with all of those demands and achieve perfect intestinal blood flow during our workouts, runners just have to train smarter than Mother Nature.

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About The Author:

Caitlin Chock set the then National High School 5K record (15:52.88) in 2004. Now a freelance writer and artist, she writes about all things running and designs her own line of running shirts. You can read more, see her running comics, and her shirts at her website.

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