Can These 7 Eating Tips Alleviate Digestive Issues Caused by Intense Exercise?

It’s the final sprint around the track and you’re going for it. The nausea begins in your stomach, rises to your head, until you feel like you might lose your lunch.

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If you suffer from a GI disorder like IBS, Crohn’s or sensitive stomach, intense exercise may not be the best for your body. Exercise-induced digestive problems can include nausea, gas and stomach pain. You may also experience vomiting or diarrhea after a particularly long or intense workout.

What’s the good news? The good news is that these symptoms are temporary. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t cause you to cramp during your workouts. While they may not be harmful to your long-term health they can hinder performance and cause discomfort. Kelly Jones, MS. RD. CSSD. LDN is a certified sports dietitian.

Exercise can cause digestive problems
Although hard workouts are good for your health overall, they can also be bad for your digestive tract. Trista Best MPH, RDN, LD, registered dietitian, says that when muscles are working hard, less blood is available for digestion. Your pre-workout snack or meal will get stuck in your stomach and then jostle around when you make aggressive movements.

How intense must exercise be for it to be a problem? Best says that you might be doing high repetitions at maximum effort with a heart rate around 70-85% of your maximum. You’re probably moving fast, running or cycling until you’re out-of-breath and dripping with sweat. This could be for people who do HIIT or distance cycling, or are preparing for sports, such as heavy lifting, or for those doing a HIIT workout.

Even if you are prone to digestive discomfort, you can alleviate the problem by being aware of what you eat, when you eat it, and what amounts you ingest.

Fueling your intense workouts: Tips for success

  1. Choose your fuel carefully
    Eating too soon after working out can increase the risk of GI discomfort and gas. Best says that this is because the body must do two things at once: digest your food and fuel your muscles. This causes both to be inefficient, and your good gut bacteria to start releasing gas as a result.

Allow your body to digest for a few hours following a large meal before you push it too hard. Jones says to eat 30-60 minutes before exercise to prevent your blood sugar from rising and falling. Consider eating a snack between 5 and 15 minutes prior to your training session, or eat a small snack during the workout to avoid cramping.

Best says that because protein and fat are slower to digest, you should keep them to a minimum before your workout. Jones suggests focusing on simple carbohydrates, as they are absorbed faster into the bloodstream and can be used immediately for energy. A small amount of protein and fat will help you feel fuller, provide energy for your muscles and electrolytes, without making you feel bloated. What does this all look like? Some smart examples are oat bars, bananas with peanut butter and a little hummus, or a piece of white bread spread with hummus.

  1. Avoid sugar alcohols
    Jones says that restrictive diets can increase the frequency of food reactions. It is particularly true for foods that contain sugar alcohols, such as xylitol. It has been proven that these sugar substitutes can trigger GI symptoms in people who have sensitive stomachs or IBS. These sugar substitutes are commonly found in packaged low-carbohydrate, low-calorie and sugar-free foods, such as protein bars, diet sodas, or teas. Sweeteners like monkfruit and stevia are good options because they don’t raise blood sugar levels and don’t affect your GI tract.
  2. Fuel your sports drinks or gels
    Jones says that sports nutrition products are better than food for people with GI distress because they contain mixed carbohydrates. The intestines will be able to absorb these more easily.

If you’re looking for something more natural, consider switching to a sports drink, gel or honey. Jones recommends SuperStarch, a carbohydrate mix that is great for long workouts. It’s also less likely to cause GI distress.

  1. Avoid dairy products if you are sensitive to it
    Even though not everyone is a dairy trigger, many are. If you’re one of them, avoid it before working out if that’s the case. Take note of less obvious sources, such as protein shakes. These protein shakes, which are usually dairy-based, can cause GI distress in people with sensitive tummies when consumed too soon after an intense workout. You don’t need too much protein before training even if it is vegan.
  2. Sprinkle a little sea salt on the skin
    It is helpful to consume salt before intense exercise because sodium is an essential electrolyte your body loses when you sweat. This loss increases with more intense workouts. To prevent stomach distress, having more stores at the start is helpful. Jones says that low fluid intake can cause GI issues and cramps. Sodium helps to maintain fluid balance, as well as improve carbohydrate digestion.

Saltine crackers or salt on pre-workout oatmeal are both great options. Best says that saltines are easy to digest and provide quick fuel for workouts in the form glycogen.

  1. Keep the greens in your recovery meal
    Best says that while vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower can be nutrient-dense and extremely healthy, they may cause nausea and gas when you are working out intensely. Black beans, chickpeas and lentils are also legumes that can cause nausea.

After exercising, eat high-fiber food and combine it with protein to repair your muscles. Best says that post-workout is the perfect time to consume protein, which you had been avoiding. “A protein drink, nut-butter, or vegetables with hummus can quickly replenish amino acids in your body to build muscle and boost the glycogen stores.”

  1. Introduce new foods slowly
    Do not add too much fuel to your pre- or post-workout routine. Jones says that some people decide to fuel their workouts with bananas, banana gels, sports drinks, and even bananas, only to experience GI distress.

Fueling is important, but it can be difficult to get used to. Fueling is best done for shorter workouts. Make sure to balance your intake of fluids, sodium and electrolytes. Jones says to think of it as “training your stomach”.

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