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how to soothe athletic gut issues

Most athletes occasionally experience some sort of gut problems during training or competition, says Patrick Wilson, PhD, RD. Nausea, abdominal cramping, bloating, diarrhea — any one of these “can quickly kill a solid performance.”

“Gut issues can be caused by a wide variety of different things, and I’d advocate for trying to identify the underlying cause,” he advises.

If you’re dealing with gut ­dysbiosis — disruption of the gut microbiome — none of our experts recommend a fecal transplant. Rather, they focus on several common causes, along with mitigation strategies.

⋅ Race-day indigestion: As running legend Bill Rodgers once famously warned, “More marathons are won or lost in the porta-toilets than at the dinner table!” When you compete, your body typically shuts down your digestive system and diverts the energy to powering your limbs and muscles. The reduction of blood flow to the gut can cause tummy troubles, from mild to dramatic — side stitches, diarrhea, reflux, nausea, and more.

You can strive to prevent this with several simple tactics:

Eat only familiar foods leading up to an event.

Don’t eat for an hour or two before a race.

Keep well hydrated but consume sugary sports drinks or energy gels in moderation.

“Most people feel best limiting their intake to liquids or low-fiber foods within two hours of the start of an exercise session,” explains Life Time master trainer and dietitian Samantha McKinney, RDN, LD. “Using something like essential amino acids — which are the building blocks to protein and easily digested — can be helpful. If you know you’re going to need to eat, try having nut butter on either a banana or rice cake. Anything heavy or higher in fiber can cause distress during exercise.”

⋅ Food reactivity: A food intolerance, sensitivity, or allergy can disrupt your whole life, not just a 5K race. Food reactivity can cause diarrhea or constipation, gas and bloating, irritable bowel syndrome, leaky-gut syndrome, and more.

Testing can determine food reactivity, and an elimination diet is one strategy that could help put your system back on track. Over-the-counter digestive enzymes can also help. (For more on food reactivity, see “Allergy, Sensitivity, or Intolerance? A Guide to Food-Reactivity Issues.”)

⋅ Bacterial infection: Bacterial invaders from contaminated water or food or a virus can disrupt the best-laid training plans. Check with your healthcare provider to determine whether it’s food poisoning. Often, you will have to wait for your system to purge the bad bugs. Keep well hydrated.

⋅ Anxiety or stress: Stress can stem from your daily life or, ironically, the thrill of a race. “Exercise is considered a ‘good’ stress, but if you’re living a stressed-out lifestyle and adding in high-intensity exercise, it’s possible to get too much of a good thing,” explains ­McKinney. “An overload of stress can cause imbalances in cortisol, which can trigger digestive upset.”

“For someone with anxiety and gut issues, engaging in activities that incorporate mindfulness and stress reduction may be helpful,” Wilson adds. Deep breathing, listening to music, or mindfulness meditation; acupuncture or hypnosis; or sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy may help.

Learn More

The gut microbiome plays a crucial role in our overall well-being, from digestion and immune function to mood and mental health. You can learn more about the importance of gut health by exploring our collection of articles.

This was excerpted from “How Your Gut Microbiome Can Affect Your Athletic Performance,” which was published in Experience Life.

Michael Dregni

Michael Dregni is an Experience Life deputy editor.

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