Sprint Without Sloshing and Trot Without the Trots
There are many discomforts a runner can experience during training and racing. Usually it involves the gastrointestinal system, and sometimes, it can be quite embarrassing. Most of us have encountered some form of GI distress during a run and have taken steps to remedy the cause so we don’t have another discomfiting moment. The cause and remedy are often evident, nevertheless, there are conditions we experience so often that we come to expect them, and instead of sorting out the issue, we find ways of coping with them. It can be exhausting to experiment with diet and in-training nutrition in the quest to alleviate stomach upset, diarrhea, sloshing, and cramping; it may seem as though we’ve tested everything and our Internet searches have come to an endless dead-end (an oxymoron that couldn’t be more accurate). Attempting to identify the cause on your own and correct the issue precisely will take good science and understanding of how your own physiology responds to general nutrition advice.
One of the first recommendations to defeat sloshing is effective hydration and balancing electrolytes. Once the body begins to sweat, electrolytes are lost and blood plasma thickens making the heart and muscles work harder to pump the blood delivering oxygen and removing metabolic waste. For proper gastric emptying and fluid assimilation, sodium levels have to be adequate to create optimal osmolality (the amount of solutes in a solution), allowing for fluid to move from the stomach into the intestines. Hydration is impeded if the concentration of sugar and sodium is too high or low. Drinking a solution that is lower in osmolality than the blood itself will facilitate absorption, reducing sloshing and digestive upset. The sloshing you hear is the liquid in your stomach that hasn’t emptied into the intestines for blood use. Avoid fluids that contain too much carbohydrate as it will push the osmolatlity outside of the range for rapid assimilation. Increasing sodium citrate (400mg for 20oz bottle) while decreasing unnecessary carbohydrates in your hydration solution can help. Do not use salt tablets or sports drinks–though convenient, they will overload the body and disrupt metabolism. I am an advocate of drinking plain water for the first 45 minutes to an hour and then introduce an electrolyte solution to your hydration system. Electrolyte tablets and mixes, such as Nuun and Tailwind (see Product Review: Tailwind Nutrition) are great products that I think should replace other sports drinks.
Many people complain of having a gluten intolerance, and for some, the sensitivity is serious and real; for others it is another trend that they assume must apply to their digestive issues. Gluten is a protein composite found in many grains and gives elasticity to dough. When someone cannot metabolize gluten, they suffer from many of the same GI troubles than runners experience: bloating, diarrhea, stomach sloshing, and muscular and joint pain. The food selection at aid stations and that are most convenient to bring on a run typically contain a good amount of gluten. If you have an undiagnosed intolerance, consuming these foods will decrease top end power and make you feel sick and dehydrated. The body simply cannot process what you are ingesting. If you suspect a sensitivity, see a doctor, but for most of us the effects are small and can be tested by eliminating any gluten from your diet and any vitamins/medications you take for at least 3 weeks. Look for gluten-free alternatives that you can take with you on a run and eat potatoes and rice instead of pasta and bread.
Nutrition is largely responsible for performance, yet another significant determinant of performance outside of macro-nutrient and calorie content is the timing of ingestion. To avoid bloating and guarantee digestion, eat 2-3 hours before training or competition. If you suffer from hypoglycemia or have a speedy metabolism necessitating a more frequent eating pattern, have a small “booster” 30 minutes to 1 hour prior to the event. This snack should be high on the glycemic index, have very little fat and, if possible, no protein. Around 15 grams of simple carbohydrate should give you just the sugar boost you need to prevent feeling hungry but not too much so that you expend energy breaking it down, feeling full and crampy. If you allow time for digestion, your body will be able to empty the contents of your stomach and be prepared for natural sweating and fuel replacement during the run. Eating too close to activity will also induce side aches which are a result of diaphragmatic compression.
To avoid any desperate detours to the bathroom, it is best to eat starchy, non-fibrous, non-fatty foods the closer you get to run time. Eating meals that have a high fiber and acid content, or eating overly processed and oily products may irritate the bowel and lead to diarrhea. Add jostling of the intestines to those problem foods and you may be surprised by the discomfort in your stomach and hoping a port-a-potty is nearby. It is best to have the calorie heavy meal at least 3 hours before your event. This meal should provide around 400-700 calories, contain 60% complex carbohydrate, 20% healthy fat, and 20% complete protein. Potatoes, bagels, bananas, rice-pudding and power-smoothies (for non-lactose intolerant individuals) are great pre-workout meals that can be consumed 1-2 hours beforehand that will not cause GI distress. Refrain from eating these foods if you have a long run or race the same day: apples, broccoli, oranges, bacon, beans
Another timing problem associated with bloating and insufficient gastric emptying is failing to hydrate before you feel thirsty. When hydration is delayed it can cause sloshing and a serious drop in performance. Not only has your power decreased, but it will take even longer to replace fluids as the sloshing indicates the water is not being assimilated. Thus, it is imperative that you begin sipping water early in your run and continue to take in a couple sips every 15-20 minutes. Most likely, you will end up gulping taking in too much fluid and air which will contribute to the sloshing as well. It may also be that you have too much air in your stomach or haven’t had a bowel movement that day.
Everyone responds differently to nutrition plans and suggested foods. Our genetics and environment play a big role in how we will react to the chemicals (both natural and artificial) in what we eat. With our differing physiology, most of what you read and hear are recommendations and general guidelines. You can have a genetic and physical workup completed to bypass some of the trial and error it takes to figure it out, however, it can be expensive and medicine is still working to explicate the mysteries of the body. Be a skeptic and don’t allow yourself to be swayed by the masses. The paleodiet works for some, and the science behind it seems justified, but evolution isn’t secured in a set timeline; our digestive systems may have adapted to new world foods better than we think. Food chemical effects on cell life is another article I will publish in the next few weeks.