This is a question of so many runners getting into trouble during long training runs and races. What is causing this ? No mystification needed: Effort ! 100% of all the time ! We do not talk about food poisoning or long term lingering stomach bugs from an African safari vacation. Those are rare cases.
Every single time you ran into digestive tract issues on your outings, is because of effort. Often we blame the sun, we blame cold, we blame one particular food product or supplement, but it is just a blindfold. If you chose your effort well, your heart rate would not have shot up to the air on those long climbs, you would have had enough blood flow to the brain to realise, that you needed to soak your clothes in cold water, drink more or more salty and slow down drastically, while protecting your face and neck and eat differently.
There are like 2000+ athletes competing in the 6 days of marathon des sables in sometimes over 45°C heat, while marathoners get heat stroke during a 3,5h road race.
We sometimes blame sports nutritional products or the lack of quality food at aid stations.
Try one thing ! As a lunch, drink up a maltodextrin powered drink, squeeze a gel and add some dried abricots and some breakfast biscuits. It is not good for you, but actually nothing will happen. You might feel funky for 3 minutes, your blood sugar elevates, but then you are back to normal. When not having blood flow to the stomach, due to way too high effort levels, these products, what doesn’t take a general part of our daily diet, digest badly and stack up problems. Blood sugar issues, too much acid, not enough acid, too rapid sugar emptying and brain fog, too high brain excitement and cold-sweating …
There are some drink-products what contain only glucose, a very little amount of cane sugar and tons of salt, like UCAN, Tailwind and SkratchLabs what might be the last resort to tackle some hot and demanding races just a little bit faster, however other way too complex, maltodextrin and glucose-fructose syrup laden, cheap multi-vitamin stacked products are just risking your performance. Add some oily foods like Tuc and potato chips, mix it with some fresh and dried fruits, chew on almonds and swallow some hot soup in the mean time and off you go, you are in trouble. In your daily routine you don’t do this. You eat oily or sweet and one or two type of foods maximum in the same time. After eating a lot of grapes or a full watermelon, would you want a salad with sardines trenched in olive oil with cheese and butter slices ? No ! Remember how bad you felt when chugged down your favorite rib eye steak and actually you were full, but when ice cream was served you doubled up on the dose ?
Providing necessary vitamins and minerals is the function of your daily diet and holding on and using these when needed is a question of health and training ! If you relied on white powder giving you some extra salts and vitamin E,B,C during races, you are already in trouble !
How do I avoid stomach distress ? Triathlete Scott Molina’s answer is:
– Get your ass in shape !
We are too consumed by the deep red-zone efforts to differentiate between good and bad choices at aid stations and actually in life, so we want everything at once.
I had races when I went on 100% banana-chips, 100% apple and orange slices, 100% on almond bars and dried abricots or recently 100% apple sauce. No issues ever during or after ! It is not just a personal experiment, but runners getting back to me with the same realisation. The simpler we eat leading up to the race, race morning and during the race, the better we go.
Food choices, carb loading, listening to the voices
Probably, because of lack of education, outside influence and fear, a lot of runners choose a different nutritional strategy for the last week and the last 3 days of the race. Eating pasta, white rice and white potatoes every night, chugging down maltodextrin drinks 3 times a day, over-using multi vitamins and mineral supplements. Your stomach will be messed up even before you arrived to the start line, so nervousness will already give you the shivers and the quadruple pre-race toilet experience, probably from both ends !
What you need is your regular daily routine what you follow through in your general life. You might want to avoid some stuff specially in the last 3 days, surely the day before, but it is basic. Tomatoes, bell peppers, celery, beef, breads, pastas and glutenous produce, milk, cheese and dairy, nuts in general and some other stuff. I eat a lot of sauerkraut, probably 2 to 3 times a week. The 3 days before the race, I am not gonna do that !
If you wanted to carb-load, I advise you to add a half sweet potato to your evening meals, with some cinnamon and turmeric sprinkled on, use chia seed pudding as a dessert, maybe add a half-tea-spoon of honey to your quality herbal infusion and add 1 medjool date while eating your sugar free 90% organic dark chocolate. Do not eat more quantity and do not add more calories. Keep the quality and micronutrient level high as usual. You also do not want to gain 1 to 2kg of weight during race week. Each gram of carbo-hydrate stored will add 3 grams of water. Together with systemic inflammation, probable salt retention from food overload, too much fat, too much oil, too much sugar, it is often the case that athletes gain more than 3kgs on race week. Then we stop pissing 5 times in the first 5km, use a big toilet at the half way mark, we loose too much salt, we cramp up and bonk at the 30km mark and the death march starts !
I had clients coming over to the shop yesterday, preparing for the Nice-Cannes Marathon for 6months now. They never ever used gels, “energy” drinks, bars, salt tabs, anti-cramp solutions, but now 5weeks out, they feel like they need. Why ? 99% of all time, because an “experienced” friend told them or they read an article on a new type of energy gel.
What a bad idea ! As an okay compromise I offered a low sugar almond bar, with a low caloric honey squeeze sachet, made in France from local producers ingredients, 100% certified organic with respectively 60 and 78 kcal. They really wanted this as an assurance. Of course, finally after my advice, I saw, that they also added a pre-race breakfast cake, organic maltodextrin, energy-drink solution. For the young couple the price went up to 80€ of all energy products, while if we were properly trained, we would need 2 squares of banana and 2 squeezed orange found freely on the marathon course.
What is the final solution to avoid stomach distress ?
Yes, I was ranting till now, because current industry standards, marketing hype and the parasitic mis-use of lack of public understanding makes me angry. Why not create products, what in addition to serving our health can also aid performance. I am not going to get into conspiracy theories, but eating sugar constantly creates inflammation, so we start buying joint supplements, go to the doctor more often, then visit the pharmacy, then pay for a nutritionist, then to the kinesio-therapist, dentist, shockwave therapy and osteopath….
- Live a hygienic clean life
- Eat well always, what supports your health, life and endurance endeavours
- Avoid some high fibre low-inflammation causing foods the 3 days before races: cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, pulses, lentils, peas, chick-peas, tomatoes, peppers, celery, parsley, strawberries, nuts and peanuts, non-soaked seeds, gluten, diary, pasta, beef, shel-fish, vinegar, onions and garlic, ginger or curcuma
- More likely eat some very easy to digest and simple foods and in moderate quantities to not over-stress your stomach:
- 1. chicken breast, spinach and an avocado with half of a sweet potato
- 2. Olives, zucchini pasta, served with coconut cream wrench on a chard leaf
- 3. Lettuce, 1 sliced lemon, half butternut squash, can of sardines with olive oil and balsamic sprinkled on it.
- Do not snack all day, just eat normal, while having 5 to 8hours of gap in-between meals. If I had my breakfast high fat coffee at 5am, my next meal would be at 14 o’clock and I would dine at 20:30 afterwards.
- Do not change your regular nutrition for race day, but simplify it if you could. If you never drank smoothies or morning kale shake, just because somebody told you how great and healthy it is, it might completely wreck your stomach ! The same true to carbohydrate loading: if you usually don’t eat 3 bowls of pasta or oat porridge 5am, then do not do it on race day:
- Half of a sweet potato with salt and cinnamon
- Small slice of butternut squash, with almond butter salt and cinnamon
- Half of an avocado with salt and olive oil
- What is my favorite ? We, with my wife have our stomach tried and tested over and over, so eating 3 to 4 hours before the race is great but not necessary. Here is our go to pre race breakfast, depending on race length:
- one or two eggs, half or full can of sardines with lemon juice, coffee !
- High fat spice infused coffee, with 1 spoon of coconut flakes and spirulina tabs
- If I did not wake up or had no time to prepare or cook anything I would not panic:
- Handful of almonds
- 50g of banana chips
- A cup of green tea with half of a small teaspoon of honey
- Nothing just a 7dl of salt and magnesium infused water !
Not going out fast and controlling your effort is also necessary. This is were magic happens. Or a disaster. Tapping straight away into your fat stores, so when the 35km mark happens and your heart rate naturally creeped up on you, you can start using your 2hours left of glycogen instead of cramping and puking.
Often this is explained contrarily, that if you were a good fat burner, at the 35km mark when you used up all your glycogen you can still tap into your fat stores and keep on going. I think that it is better to warm up as the race goes on, burn ton of fats and when you need to put down the hammer with plenty of glycogen left, you accelerate. Do not take gels with you. As an emergency solution at aid stations, you got coke and gels, but they are last resort, in case you made a BIG mistake and must correct it. My best marathons were where I ate only from aid-stations, just small bananas and orange slices.
Regular pacing is BS if you want to succeed. A regular HR reading is superior. I am not talking about sub 2 marathons where one mistaken mile would cost you the whole effort, but between 2:30 and over. If your heart rate stays relatively regular, your fat burning is going to be superior to the effort of jumping beats between 140 and 170, regardless that the final result is 158bpm average heart rate ! The difference would be only visible in the ratio of consumed calories, external and internal, what is also an indication of health, recovery and future post race inflammation !
Breaking 3 or 4 hours
This is also easy. Follow your heart rate and pace in the same time. Let the pace flag go at the beginning ! Their starting speed is 3h pace. Your starting speed includes warming up and getting into race dynamics gradually. Start slowly accelerating at the 3km mark to catch up with the desired pacing crew. That might take even 3 to 4 km, do not panic. Stay 10 to 20 meters behind the pace flag keeping your heart rate relatively steady. Very slowly accelerate to pass the pace flag at the 35km mark ! What else you need ?