9 Tips On Preventing GI Distress When Running

Call it “runner’s trots,” “the runs,” “workout stomach.” Whatever you name it, most runners are no stranger to GI issues.

In fact, if you do any type of intense running (or exercise), then chances, at some point, you have had to high-tail to the nearest secluded tree or bathroom to relieve yourself ASAP.

An Embarrassing Subject for Many

GI distress problems are one of the most avoided subjects. But, regardless of how embarrassing they can be, tossing the whole thing under the rug will not make them disappear.

That’s why today, my dear readers, I’m gonna share with you some of my best advice and practical action steps you need put into action so you can prevent Gastrointestinal distress on the run.

So are you excited? Then here we go…

A Very Common Problem

If you are runner suffering from GI issues, then please know that you are not alone. In fact, research has shown that this is quite a common problem for runners; with the majority of pavement pounders reporting experiencing varying degrees of GI distress either during or a following a run.

According to a 2009 study conducted by the academic journal of current Opinions in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, roughly 50 percent of runners experience GI distress problems—especially diarrhea and abdominal cramping—during hard runs, mainly long runs (we will see why in a moment).

Research has also found that athletes are twice as high likely to experience GI distress issues during running than other endurance sports, like swimming or cycling.

What’s more? The frequency of the issues is 1.5 to 3 times higher in the elite athletes than the recreational runner, according to another study published in the September 2009 issue of the Lippincott William and Wilkins Journal.

Truth be told, I still suffer from “Running GI distress” from time to time, but it is nowhere near as devastating or run-ending as it used to be.

Nonetheless, before I share with you some of the preventative strategies that worked for me, let’s take a quick look at the biology of the GI distress.

What is GI Distress

GI distress is painful and can rapidly turn a good run into a march through hell, or even cut it short.

So what is it really?

Gastrointestinal distress, or gastric distress, is a general medical term used to refer to a wide variety of symptoms including those of abdominal cramping, gas, burping, irritable bowel syndrome, indigestion or dyspepsia, vomiting, heartburn, constipation, nausea, diarrhea, and in some extreme cases, gastrointestinal bleeding.

According to research, these intestinal issues is one of the most reported reasons why so many runners drop out or don’t do as well as expected in a long race—especially during half-marathon and marathons.

In short, GI distress sucks. Big time. And can suck the fun out of your runs in no-time.

The Process – how does it happen?

When you are hitting the pavement, your body’s primary focus becomes supplying (and delivering) the maximum amount of oxygenated blood to the working muscles.

In other words, blood is diverted away from the stomach and intestines as your fatiguing body puts digestion on the back burner.

Also, the mechanical bouncing linked with running is also suspected of being a culprit in the relatively high occurrence of GI distress problems among runners—especially when comparing it to low impact sports, like swimming or cycling.

According to this theory, running nudges your digestive tract and forces the jostling of the lower intestines, which can irritate the GI tract, leading to gastric distress issues.

Causes of GI Distress

GI distress can be blamed on an array of different causes and conditions. It can be due to a number of diverse factors which can be divided into internal and external causes, and typically it is a mix of these factors that sets the stage for GI distress.

The most common external causes include nutrition (eating a heavy meal too soon to a run or eating something that disagreed with you) and dehydration.

On the other hand, the most common internal causes include decreased blood flow to the digestive tract, mechanical stress, emotional problems, and existing gastrointestinal conditions, such as having a virus or stomach bug, ulcers, and other stomach ailments.

9 Tips On Preventing GI Distress When Running

The bad news is that there is no bullet-proof way to avoid GI distress.

Why? It’s quite simple. Because we are all so different and respond to differently to different foods and meals. No suit fits all.

Even so, there is no cause to worry. The good news is there are several of concrete things you can do to steer clear of GI distress.

Here is how I manage my GI problems, and some of this can really help you as well—especially the first strategy.

1. Avoid Dehydration

Your first line of defense against stomach pain and pit stops is proper hydration.

We all know that dehydration can spell disaster on running performance and enjoyment. But it can also lead to, or increase the risks, of GI distress issues while exercising.

In fact, about 80 percent of runners who experienced 4 percent of body fluid losses or greater also reported experiencing GI distress problems, according to study.

According to this study, the combination of slower gastric emptying, dehydration and heat exposure (especially during the summer) can increase GI distress problems in runners.

Not only that, heat can make GI distress problems worse. When it’s hot, your body calls for more blood to be diverted to the skin to avert overheating.

Therefore, please make sure that you’re well hydrated before you head out the door.

The old recommendation of downing plenty of water before a run is not enough. You need to stay well hydrated throughout the day. And keep drinking the whole day, and you won’t need to force yourself to drink before you head out of the door.

Plus, make sure to drink plenty of water the moment you wake up in the morning. After 7 or 8 hours of sleep, you are going to be definitely dehydrated—even if you don’t feel thirsty—especially if you’re running in the morning.

If you are running for more than 45-minute, then take a water bottle with you and practice the “one gulp every mile” tactic, even if you didn’t feel thirsty.

2. Give It Time

Biologically speaking, it takes time for your digestive system to do its job.

As a result, give your stomach ample time to break down and absorb a meal, especially after a heavy meal.

Aim for at least leaving two to three hours between a meal and a run.

If you don’t have the luxury of waiting, then you can always have a light pre-run snack an hour before running. Make sure it’s light and relatively easy to digest; it shouldn’t leave you feeling too filled or puffy.

For me what worked the best was shifting from eating three large meals a day into consuming 4 to 5 smaller meals 5 to 6 hours apart and throughout the day was a real game changer.

This also helped increased my energy levels and got me on the path of eating healthier. You should try it too.

What’s more? Make sure to have an experimentative spirit. This will help you find what works the best over the long haul—and that’s what matters.

3. Keep your Diet Simple

This is as simple as it can get. If you consume a meal (or drink) that’s high in fiber, fat, protein or concentrated sugars too soon before a run, then expect GI distress on the run. There is no way around it.

In fact, study after study, have linked meals that are high in fiber, and fats with GI distress issues, not only in runners but in ordinary folks from all backgrounds and activity levels.

The trick here is to simplify your diet—especially during hard training days. I double urge you to do this if you have a bad history of GI problems, or when running in the summer.

To stay on the right side, here are the key traits of a simple pre-run meal:

  • Reasonable in volume,
  • low-fiber,
  • low-fat,
  • has some protein,
  • and isn’t heavy on sugars.

For more ideas on proper pre-run meals, click here.

If you are planning for a marathon or a long endurance event, then you can always reach for a sports drinks to meet your energy needs. These drinks are specially made to provide your body with (almost) everything it needs during running.

However, there is a caveat here. Sports drinks with more than 10 percent of carbs concentration have been linked with nausea, cramps, and diarrhea, according to study. So to stay on the safe side, aim for products that are at or below 5 percent carbs concentration to steer clear of GI issues.

4. Avoid Caffeine

I know, according to study, caffeine increases performance and can provide you with a quick energy boost. But for some people, I included, caffeine does sometimes lead to some stomach problems.

Caffeine might provide you with the wrong type of a boost.

Here is why. Caffeine is a stimulant that can cause peristalsis—automatic contraction of two sets of muscles in the walls of the gut that gets the food moving through the digestive track.

If your usual cup of joe triggers this peristalsis, then, by all means, avoid it before a run. Drink water instead. It’s good for you.

If you are still hung up on the coffee, then have it way before the run, giving your digestive system enough time to absorb the caffeine.

5. Go Easy With the Mileage

As I stated earlier, you are more likely to experience GI problems during long and hard training sessions. This is probably due to the combination of dehydration, elevated body temperature, great blood supply to the working muscles and mechanical oscillation that happen during hard runs.

In other words, as a runner, you can experience GI distress issues simply due to running too hard too long.

The good news is that for most runners the gastrointestinal system, just like the cardiovascular system, can adapt to training. In other words, you can train your stomach the same way you train your muscles and cardio system to get good at running.

Therefore, the trick here is to take you time by gradually adding mileage and “training” your stomach to properly handle the food by experimenting with different foods and drinks.

Also, to be more accurate, keep a food journal in which you keep track of the foods and drinks you ingest and how they have affected your performance and GI tract. And be sure to experiment with different eating plans, and one day, BOOM, you’ll have the winning formula.

6. Manage Stress

According to study, stress, anxiety and other mental problems can take a toll on your stomach. Research has linked these psychological problems with your GI tract ability to function optimally and adequately.

So it’s not just what you eat and drink before and during a run, what you think matters as well.

As a result, do your best to eradicate stress from your life. Meditate and do yoga and learn how to manage your energy channels—physical, emotional and intellectual—right.

The psychological aspect is also vital for racers. A race can be a source of stress—especially if you worked hard on improving your numbers, and you are taking this whole race thing seriously—or too seriously.

If you are racing in a city you never been in for, then get there two to three days before the big day so you can get used to the unfamiliar race settings. For the race itself, stick with your successful nutrition formula.

8. Run Around Bathrooms

For the GI issue prone runner, planning running routes that include bathrooms at various points for a safety net is another extremely helpful strategy.

Knowing that you have a place to go to for answering Mother’s Nature call is comforting and can ease up the whole deal on you.

And also be prepared for emergencies. Cary a small amount of wet wipes or toilet paper in your pocket just, in case disaster hits during the most unexpected moment.

Furthermore, you might also consider using an over-the-counter (OTC) anti-diarrhea medication, such as Imodium—especially if you ave a bad history of the “the runs” or when participating in a big race, or when you know that there are not bathrooms in sight.

But please, don’t use these drugs on a regular basis. Only to be used in extreme cases and with your doctor’s approval.

What’s more? You shouldn’t be embarrassed by this whole issue. You should always seek the help of a professional when standard preventative measures prove futile.

So consult your physician and discuss all of your options before reaching for any drugs. A visit to the doctor is mandatory if you have any serious digestive problems, like ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome.

9. Listen to Your Body

In the end, your body knows what works the best—but there is one small caveat: You need to be willing to listen. Otherwise, your body’s cries for help will be falling on deaf ears.

The foods and drinks you consume have an impact on your performance and stomach—whether you want to admit it or not. The trick here is to listen to your body and know what’s good or what not so good; both regarding performance and enjoyment.

Therefore, practice body awareness at all times. Learn how to gauge how your body feels before, during, and after a run and how that relates to a specific type of food or beverage.

To keep track of your experience, use a diary and keep tabs on training days when you experienced GI issues. Write down the symptoms and what you consumed and or drank that day or the night before.


Well, the whole issue of GI distress is really embarrassing, and to sum what you should do to minimize these issues, do the following:

  1. Think (twice or more) about the foods you are ingesting before running and the day before, and try to steer clear of high fat and high fiber foods at all times.
  2. Just like swimming, don’t run after a meal.
  3. Keep your body well hydrated throughout the day, and take a water bottle with you for long runs—especially under hot weather conditions.
  4. Experiment with different foods and drinks and keep track using a training journal.
  5. Give your body ample time to adapt to higher training loads.
  6. In case of doubt, visit a physician and get professional help.

Here you have it.

I hope this helps.

Thank you for reading my post.

Please leave your questions and comments in the section below.

Featured Image Credit – Wout Touw through Flickr

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David Dack


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