Runner’s Digest – How to prevent digestive woes from slowing you down!

By Jessalyn O’Donnell, RD

50 minutes. This was it. I was ready to run my fastest 10km ever! It then hit. Standing at the start line, my stomach started to growl like an irritated dog! I tried to convince myself it was the runner beside me. However, once I hit the 3km mark, I realized I was only fooling myself. I needed a washroom stat! I frantically sprinted to the porta-potty, which in this time of serious desperation glowed like a beacon of glory! Two more lavatory detours and 18 additional minutes’ later, I staggered across the finish. Time = 63 minutes.

Can you relate to this experience? Don’t be ashamed. While some runners have cast-iron tummies, research shows another 30-83% of runners experience stomach upset. The tricky element is that foods problematic for some may be tolerated well by others. The bottom line is that it is critical you experiment with your diet BEFORE race day.

Sidestep digestion issues with these strategies to avoid falling victim to the porta-potty mayhem!

  1. Scenario: Gas, bloating & burpingSuspect: Pre-race jitters; fizzy drinks; cruciferous veggies (like broccoli and cabbage); high fiber foods such as fruits & vegetables, beans, bran cereals & bars; dried fruit; spices like garlic & onion and chewing gum can cause swallowing air bubbles triggering gas and bloating

    Remedy: 3-4 hours prior to racing, stick to easy-to-digest foods high in carbohydrate, low in fiber, protein & fat. Eat slowly to avoid swallowing air. To calm pre-race nerves, take slow, relaxed breaths

  2. Scenario: Sharp stomach painSuspect: Regularly taking anti-inflammatory painkillers, such as acetylsalicylic acid & ibuprofen can bother the stomach, and in severe circumstances cause intestinal bleeding

    Remedy: Instead of “band-aiding”
    your aches and pains, talk to your doc about safer solutions

  3. Scenario: HeartburnSuspect: Heartburn occurs when
    stomach acid touches the throat

    Remedy: Eat more often and slim down your portions. Eat slowly. Wait 3 hours after eating to run. Don’t lie down after a meal. Avoid heartburn  aggravators: fried foods, chocolate, high-fat & spicy meals, alcohol, caffeine, and acidic foods (e.g. tomatoes & citrus)

  4. Scenario: Gnarly sharp pain under your ribsSuspect: “Side stitches” may be
    caused by cramping of the diaphragm

    Remedy: Remember to breathe deeply while running and avoid heavy drinking/eating 30 minutes prior

  5. Scenario: DiarrheaSuspect: Increased sensitivity to food & drink while running could prompt “runner’s trots” due to reduced digestive function while running


    • Pass on caffeinated sources like coffee & tea, especially in large amounts. Check other drinks, foods, and medications for caffeine content
    • High concentrations of simple sugars like fructose can cause tummy trouble (as in juice, gels and energy drinks). So can sugar alcohols (sorbitol, mannitol, etc.)
    • Avoid high doses of vitamin C and “green” drinks
    • Sip fluids every 15 minutes during your run. Dehydration can prompt diarrhea
    • Avoid high-fiber foods (>4grams fiber) 24 hours before running
    • Go easy on dairy pre-run if you have trouble stomaching milk. Instead save the chocolate milk for post-run recovery

Halt digestive woes so you can motor past porta-potty mayhem and arrive at the finishing line in a beacon of glory and your best time ever!

Jessalyn O’Donnell, RD is head of nutrition services at Thrifty Foods.