Running Away From GI Distress: Symptoms, Causes And Tips

March 18, 2013 | Taylor Ryan

Must See Running Videos

Week five of your marathon training. You're confident and feeling good, because up to this point everything has gone perfectly. Your shoes are on, your GPS watch is synced up and you're ready to hit the road for your longest training run yet.

The first few miles go great—until you feel a slight grumble in your stomach. You try to ignore it, but it becomes a cramp and then something more—something that tells you to stop running or else something bad might happen. Your long run suddenly becomes a search for the nearest public restroom.

What caused your stomach to rebel against you? The general answer: gastrointestinal distress, more commonly known as gastrointestinal distress. If this has happened to you, you're not alone. Over 45% of runners experience gastrointestinal distress at one point or another during marathon training. (See How Simple Pre-Race Eating Led to Chris Legh's Breakthrough.)

Exercise Symptoms of Gastrointestinal Distress

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Gas
  • Burping
  • Heartburn
  • Nausea
  • Urgent need for a bowel movement
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding (severe cases)

As you can see, the symptoms range from mild to severe, but one thing remains the same: GI distress is uncomfortable and can quickly turn a great run into a run cut short.

What Causes Running Gastrointestinal Distress?

Much research is still being done on GI issues, but we do know of a few culprits.

Digestion happens easiest when you are resting. The body sends extra blood to the gut to help the process go "smoothly." Exercise can disrupt digestion, because more blood flows to the muscles and less to the stomach. Also, the gut goes through mechanical trauma from the body bouncing up and down with each step. Foods that stimulate the gut, such as fiber and caffeine, can produce discomfort. Finally, exercise triggers a hormone boost that signals the stomach to move its contents along. The more intense your run, the more likely you are to experience distress.

Rest assured though. Some of the things that lead to GI distress can be controlled—especially hydration. Losing just 2% of your body weight from fluid loss can lead to GI troubles. For a 150-pound person, that's just 3 pounds.

How to Avoid Running Gastrointestinal Distress

There are several things you can do to keep your gut calm and collected during runs. One bad experience should not prevent you from continuing your training. Eliminate unwanted running emergencies and banish gastrointestinal distress for good with the following tips. (See also Time Your Fueling for Peak Performance.)

Avoid anything new before running

Don't use the day of a run to try a new protein powder, restaurant or gel. Stick with foods that you know settle well in your stomach. For many people they can range from toast with nut butter to eggs and bacon.

Eat 1-2 hours before running

This will give your stomach plenty of time to digest your food.

Avoid high-fiber foods 1-2 days before long runs

Fiber stimulates the intestines. If you feel that high-fiber foods affect your run, avoid things like  beans, broccoli and grains.

Hydrate

Aim to drink 64 ounces of water each day, more on days when you are running. Drink 6-8 ounces before starting a run and drink frequently along your route. If your run will last longer than an hour, drink a 50-50 mix of water and a sports drink to replenish lost electrolytes. (Learn how to Individualize Your Hydration Schedule.)

Stick with "stomach-friendly foods"

These are foods low in fiber, low in fat, low in sugar (no donuts), and devoid of artificial sweeteners (which have a laxative effect).

Promote pre-run bowels

Try to go to the bathroom before beginning your run. Stimulants such as coffee or tea can help.

Taylor Ryan
- Taylor Ryan, NASM C-PT, is a personal trainer and nutrition consultant in Charleston, S.C. She combines programs for strength training, endurance training and high intensity...
Taylor Ryan
- Taylor Ryan, NASM C-PT, is a personal trainer and nutrition consultant in Charleston, S.C. She combines programs for strength training, endurance training and high intensity...
Must See
Colin Kaepernick Explains His Ridiculous Socks
Views: 27,429,781
How to Perform the Euro Step With Iman Shumpert
Views: 84,573
Brandon Jennings: "Always Improve"
Views: 4,033,431

Featured Videos

A Day in the Life of NBA D-League Star Seth Curry Views: 66,647
Kevin Love's Cone Hop Basketball Shooting Drill Views: 5,931
Eastbay Path to the Pros Episode 2: Laying the Groundwork Views: 124,090
Load More

Resources

STACK Fitness

Everything you need to be fitter than ever

STACK Conditioning

Sport-specific conditioning programs

Coaches and Trainers

Tips and advice for coaches and trainers

Magazine

Latest issues of STACK Magazine

STACK 4W

Women's sports workout, nutrition and lifestyle advice

Gamer

Gaming, entertainment and tech news

Basic Training

Military-style training for athletes

News

Find the latest news relevant to athletes

Most Popular Videos

Perfect Dwyane Wade's Signature Euro Step
Views: 1,308,506
What Ryan Hall Eats for Breakfast
Views: 795,206
STACK Fitness Weekly: How To Do a Muscle-Up
Views: 778,488
Greg Nixon's Hill Training Program
Views: 705,633
Roy Hibbert 540 lbs Deadlift
Views: 1,559,831

Load More
More Cool Stuff You'll Like

8 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Ran My First Marathon

5 Un-Smooth Habits That Ruin Runners

Off-Season Triathlon Training Tips and Workout Program

10 Fresh Tunes for Your Running Playlist

5 Questions Runners Should Ask Themselves During Every Run

Are You Ready for a Tough Mudder?

You're Doing It Wrong: Running

The Obstacle Course Racer's Guide to Fixing Muscle Cramps

How to Design a Running Schedule That Fits Your Life

Ultramarathon Runner Stephanie Howe's 7 Training Secrets

7-Year Old Triathlete Sets 5K Record

Don't Choke on Race Day: Tips to Run a Better Race

How to Control Your Breathing During an Obstacle Race

The Most Effective Form of Endurance Training

Weight Training for Runners: 3 Full-Body Moves

Why Jogging Is Counterproductive

3 Things You Must Do Before Trying Minimalist Running Shoes

6 5K Tips for a Great Running Experience

An Introduction to Strength Training for Runners

The Only 2 Running Diet Rules You Need to Know

5 Ways to Freshen Up Your Run

5 Keys and A Workout Plan for An Awesome 5K

7 Tips to Help First-Time Marathoners Avoid Common Mistakes

Running Tips for True Beginners

Guide to Common Running Terminology

Get Geared Up for the Wall Jump Obstacle

Pick The Right Running Partner (The First Time)

How to Start Your Barefoot Leg Workout

9 Things Every Trail Runner Should Have

How to Prepare for the Spartan Race and Other Mud Runs

Hunter McIntyre Rises Above the Competition

10 Fresh Running Destinations in the U.S.

Be Ready to Run a 5K in 6-8 Weeks

6 Best On-the-Go Snacks for Runners

8-Week Spartan Beast Training Program

7 Endurance Tips From Ultramarathon Runner Ian Sharman

Are You Ready for the Arctic Enema?

STACK Challenge: Army Two-Mile Run

4 Steps to Win Your Next Race

Learn the Secrets of Tapering

Maximize Your Trail Running

Tired of Tiring During Runs? Try These Jogging Pace Drills

The Exercise Every Runner Must Do