Quit Your Bellyaching: How to Fight Running GI Distress!

Uh-oh, looks like a storm is brewing. (Photo credit: sidknee23)

If you followed Rosemary’s posts, you may remember she completely overhauled her diet in 2012 to help combat the nasty GI problems she was having while running.  After finding out I have Celiac Disease, I’ve been there!  But cutting out problem foods wasn’t a golden ticket to relief from gastrointestinal distress while running; sometimes I feel like my tummy and I are waging war while I’m out there running. If you have GI trouble, too, you know sometimes it’s just horrible belly cramps that cut your run short, and other times a sudden grumble can send you fleeing for the closest restroom!  If you’re affected by either or both, there are a few tricks I’ve learned to combat what I prefer to call “running stomach,” since I’m admittedly kind of grossed out by the whole thing.Before I begin, I want to clarify I am not a doctor, dietician, or any other sort of trained professional. If you take my advice, you are doing so at your own risk (and probably because you think I’m pretty darn cool), not because I told you to!  I’d also like to note that if you’re easily offended or grossed out by frank discussion of bowel functions, this post may not be for you.

With that, here’s a little TMI – When I started training, my so-called “running stomach” caused near-constant stomach pain, sometimes manifesting in unbearable cramps that would abruptly end my run, and sometimes manifesting in…uh…other ways.  To spare you the gory details, let’s just say there were an incredibly large number of embarrassing dashes to gas station restrooms which, lets face it, aren’t exactly pristine.

Yuck yuck yuck yuck yuck!  Like Britney Spears going barefoot in a public restroom.  That’s how gross I felt!

Being a queasy issue, so to speak, this problem goes by many names. Sometimes it’s called “runner’s trots”, sometimes just “running GI problems,” and the Mayo Clinic just opens right up and uses graphic terminology.  I’ll spare you.

To remedy the problems, I’ve experimented with a lots of different snacks for before and during my long runs, and different hydration techniques.  While I still experience a “running stomach” from time to time, it is nowhere near as debilitating or run-ending as it was before.

Here’s how I manage my GI issues:

An endoscopy of a normal stomach of a healthy ...
Who knew this could cause so many run-ending problems? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Plan meals that soothe the savage tummy:

Pre-run fueling isn’t just the meal before your run, but the meals 24 hours before your run.  For me, the meals most relevant to my long run are actually dinner and my nighttime snack the day before.  If I go overboard by eating too much fat or the wrong kind of carbs, I feel it the next morning in my run.  The night before a long run, try having an early dinner with complex carbs, veggies, and lean protein.  For a snack, have whole grain crackers and hummus or cheese; nothing too fatty or too fibrous.  If you have lactose issues like Rosemary, stay away from dairy or high-fructose fruits.

I always eat on the morning of my long run. I usually have some sort of easily-digestible carb (yes, that means the “white” carbs) and a tablespoon of peanut butter with coffee and soy milk.  The blood sugar boost from this bland breakfast makes immediate exercise a possibility for me.

A side note, I have found I don’t need to wait very long after I eat to run, although web searches have told me most people do, especially after heavier meals.  Experimenting to find what works for your body is important!


Hydration is key:

I learned the hard way that dehydration is the #1 cause of my GI problems.  At first, when I drank water it made the problem worse, but I’ve learned that was because I was already dehydrated when I started running.  Much like your nutrition, hydration for a run starts the day before.  So start drinking and drink often!  I practice the “one gulp every mile” lesson, and it’s a big gulp, promise!

The caveat is that I do not drink anything starting 30 minutes before the run – not because of my stomach, but because of too many adventures playing “bathroom hide-and-go-seek.”  Not a fun game.  Many people also experience side stitches, those nasty cramps in your side, if too much water is consumed just before a run.

Eating on the run

Avoiding GI distress during a race is a matter of practice. Make sure you test out all your race fueling foods or supplements during your long runs.  Learning what to eat while I’m running was its own adventure; but I’ve concluded that what I’m eating is way less important to my GI tract than hydration is.  I use a combination of Jelly Bellies and fuel shots – the key for me is that they contain caffeine.  For some reason, the caffeine seems to help my stomach.  (I have NO IDEA why.  I’m not a doctor, remember?)  For many people caffeine can trigger stomach irritation, and some runners even have trouble with sport drinks and gels.  The key is to test your fuel and make sure it works for you.

Ease into high mileage.

firmly believe that the 100% guaranteed method of eliminating your running stomach issues is taking your time.  Our stomach is made of smooth muscle, but that doesn’t mean we can’t train it. In my experience, avoiding making drastic mileage changes and experimenting conservatively with your diet, and eventually you can train your stomach too.

Everyone is different, but for me, usually GI trouble happens during longer distance runs (obviously to ensure that I’m far away from home and my own bathroom), so I make sure that I work slowly toward high mileage training, even if it means I have to extend a training plan a little longer.

Keep records!

The number one way to determine what’s right for your belly is to keep a record in your training log of what foods you ate before or during your run, especially if you have a GI reaction.


How do you combat gastrointestinal trouble on the run?

Ultrarunner, yoga teacher, academic, and feminist. I write about ultrarunning, feminism, and the intersection of running and life.

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  1. This is really interesting! I just went in for a colonoscopy to try to figure out my GI issues, without any definitive answers. I think my next step may be trying an elimination diet. Thanks for the info

  2. I’m so sorry that you’ve had to go through this, because I know first hand how miserable it can be. I’ve found that running in the heat seems to have a pretty large impact on when I experience trouble, although I’ve run cooler-weather races and had to stop at multiple gas stations on the drive home, and even pull over to wait for the cramps to pass so I could drive again. You mentioned that you have Celiac Disease; I’ve unearthed my own gluten sensitivity over the last couple of years – it gives me terrible acne (within 24-48 hours of consumption…every time!) and I swear I feel sore and achy if I “cheat.” I’ve also noticed that my intestinal distress seems like a much less daunting issue when I’m gluten free, and I suspect this is a fairly widespread issue for many. Thank you for sharing your story here and making those of us who have had similar experiences feel like we’re not the only ones out there being gross! 😉