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How to Manage Stomach Pains After Running

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Just as you are getting into a regular routine of running and waiting for the amazing benefits it will have on your health, you realize that your stomach hurts after running. Initially, you blame it on your eating habits but soon you realize that every time you have a vigorous run, your stomach feels sick. Well, you are not alone. Many regular exercise enthusiasts experience stomach pain after running. And just because something is commonly happening doesn’t mean that you should accept it. Read on to know the various causes of runner’s stomach cramps after running.

Stomach pain after running is a frequent problem that runners have to deal with and should not be ignored. Most of the times, it is because of an underlying cause that can be easily managed by medical intervention and simple dietary changes. The two common areas involved in stomach cramps are- the abdominal wall muscles, commonly known as running stitch, and the gastrointestinal system. Here we shall discuss the latter area of concern.

Before we go into the details how to manage gastric distress after running, it is important for us to understand what exactly is this condition and how does the hydration status of our body can play a role in it.

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Knowing What is Runner’s Colitis

The different symptoms of gastric disturbances in runners include belching, stomach-ache, nausea, vomiting, cramps, bloating, flatulence and diarrhea. All of these symptoms are more prevalent in runners than in swimmers or cyclists. Any of these symptoms can occur under the medical condition known as runner’s colitis. If you observe any (or all) of these symptoms after a long run, please consult a doctor to confirm and manage the condition.

Brief Physiology of Digestion

Whatever you eat goes from your mouth to the stomach via the food pipe. The stomach then releases digestive fluids and enzymes to break down (or digest) the food. This process takes about 2-4 hours and then the broken-down food goes to the small intestines. This is where nutrients are absorbed into the blood before passing the leftovers to the large intestine and eventually the rectum. Finally, the waste material is excreted from the body.

This process takes anywhere between 10 and 20 hours, depending on the person’s body. It is, therefore, normal to assume that the food eaten for dinner might be responsible for causing stomach pain after running the next morning. This, however, is not entirely the case. Researchers have established the following causes of stomach cramps after running long distance, a condition that is clinically referred to as runner’s colitis:

Physiological Causes

The major physiological cause of gastrointestinal symptoms like pain and bowel movement just after a long run is reduced blood flow to the abdomen. During physical exertion, the body increases the blood supply to active muscles. This leads to a reduced blood flow to the abdomen, which can, in turn, result in cramping. Sometimes, this condition can severely affect the runner.

Stomach cramps in runners
Anxiety Could Also Be Responsible For Post-Running Stomach Cramps (source)

Similarly, anxiety is also responsible for stomach pain after running because it affects hormonal secretion that indirectly controls abdominal secretions and movement. Once the abdomen gets signals of dehydration, it tends to have an acid reflux. In these situations, the body generates a stress response and release inflammatory chemicals that further worsen the symptoms. This condition is also referred to as runner’s trots and is largely due to physiologic stress.

Mechanical Causes

Poor posture or injury are the two most frequent mechanical causes of gastrointestinal symptoms like stomach pain after running, diarrhea and cramping. Professional runners and regular long-distance runners have a high incidence of gastrointestinal bleeding. This is because of the repetitive impact of running on the abdominal wall and subsequent injury. This can result in flatulence, diarrhea, cramping and lower abdominal pain after running. Many a time, there are traces of occult blood in stools after long distance running, manifested as bloody diarrhea.

Postural problem and aspiration of air during breathing or drinking water may also add to the problem above and aggravate the symptoms mentioned above.

Runners having a stomach pain after running
Poor Posture and Lack of Nutrition Can Also Be the Reason (source)

Nutritional Causes

Yes, nutritional status of a person also has a role to play in stomach pain after running. Dietary intake of fiber, protein, fats, and fructose has been linked to an increased tendency to have gastrointestinal symptoms of runner’s colitis. A lesser-than-required fluid intake is also a cause of these symptoms, probably because of dehydration. Dairy products are another proven culprit in gastric troubles. People with lactose intolerance are more likely to develop these problems. Therefore, these food items should be regulated in the diet to minimise stomach pain.

The Importance of Hydration for a Runner

The importance of runners staying hydrated cannot be stressed enough. During the peak of their physical exertion in their race, a runner’s body loses about 2 liters of sweat in an hour. Additionally, their gastric emptying can reach up to 800 ml per hour. This means that a runner’s body loses fluids at an enormous rate. Regular fluid replenishment is a great way to combat dehydration caused due to this fluid loss. Drinking isotonic or hypotonic fluids before a long run decreases the likelihood of stomach pain after running.

Hydration for Runners
Drinking water reduces the risk of stomach pains (Source)

One should keep in mind that drinking too much fluid before a big run is not advisable. This is because ingesting a lot of fluids will give you a feeling of fullness during the run which is bound to hamper your performance.

Most of the time, fluid intake plays a far more important role than food in controlling episodes of gastric distress in runners. It is recommended to take 10 ounces of liquids and about 100 calories of sports drinks for every 5 kilometers you run. An idea about sports drinks and their composition is discussed next.

Components of Beverages for Runners

Beverages for runners
Magic Drinks For Runners (source)

Gastric emptying of fluids is delayed by simple sugars. For example, a 10% solution of glucose has up to 50% slower gastric emptying compared to plain water. Polymers of glucose like maltodextrins also have a similar effect. These compounds are ideal components for a runner’s drink. Anything above 10% is likely to cause gastrointestinal symptoms resulting in stomach pain after running.

Find out the top foods for runners.

Top 17 Tips and Tricks to Prevent Stomach Pain After Running

If you are wondering how to prevent diarrhea after running, look no further. We have compiled a list of dos and don’ts to rescue you from a  toilet trip in the middle of your running schedule.

  • It is advisable to monitor your dietary intake in general, but special care is needed before a major run. At least 24 hours prior to your big run, avoid eating too much fiber. Also close the tabs on food items that cause flatulence, for example, beans, fruit or salad. Also, if you know that a particular food causes acidity, it is best to omit it from your diet.
  • A popular approach to combat stomach pain after running is to follow the BRAT diet. This form of the diet consists of bananas, white rice, apples and white toast, and has a constipating effect.
  • Replacing high fiber food items with the ones that have substantially lesser amounts of fiber is an easy way to combat gastric distress after running. For example, replacing brown rice with white rice.
  • Many fitness professionals recommend taking up to 800 mg of magnesium, about two days before a race. Magnesium has a laxative effect and clears up the fiber built up in the stomach and prevent an emergency visit to the toilet in the middle of the race.
  • A very simple and effective way to increase absorption of fluids before your run is to sip it instead of gulping it down quickly.
  • Limit the intake of alcohol in general, as it affects the motility of abdominal muscles.
  • Say no to sweeteners like sorbitol, isomalt etc. because these have a laxative effect in general. They are common ingredients of sugar-free candies and gums.
  • Have plenty of fluids, because dehydration accelerates bowel movement. However, warm liquids should be avoided as they tend to fasten up the movement of food in the digestive tract. Include electrolytes in your drinks and absolutely refrain from drinking hypertonic beverages. Most concentrated sports drinks and gels are highly hypertonic and do more harm than good.
  • If the weather is hot and humid, then you must double your fluid intake. This is because your body will lose more water in these conditions.
  • A very good indicator of the hydration level of your body is to observe the color of your morning urine. In optimum hydration conditions, your pee color should be almost clear. The more tinted the color of your morning urine is, the more dehydrated your body is. Adjust your fluid intake accordingly.
  • Limit the intake of caffeine in any form of tea, coffee or caffeinated beverages. Even small amounts of caffeine in the bloodstream have been associated with an increased propensity of bowel movement.
  • Find out if you are lactose intolerant and if so, switch to other dietary alternatives.
  • Female runners who have delivered children are at a higher risk of stomach pain after running because of a weaker pelvic floor. Specific exercises for strengthening that area will be helpful in combating lower abdominal pain after running.
  • It is a great idea to maintain a record of your running schedule like your pace, weather conditions, and distances covered. Correlate these with any gastrointestinal symptoms that you noticed that day. These details will be immensely helpful for establishing a correlation between the problem areas that need work.
  • Timing your meals according to your running schedule is also a great way to prevent toilet trips during your running. Avoid heavy meals and switch to frequent, light meals throughout the day. Consulting a qualified dietician will help you make a very healthy diet plan in this regard.
  • While practicing long runs, it is advisable to plan a route with public conveniences nearby. This way, you will have a toilet accessible in case you need to use it. This will also help you to remain stress-free.
  • Discuss all your concerns with your doctor. Inquire about any medication that can be taken on an emergency basis to an episode of runner’s colitis. Discuss in detail about any medication that you are taking regularly and ask if it could have gastric side-effects.
  • Having a knowledge of all these details will help you manage your gastric issues better. 

If you have read our complete list of useful tips, we assume that you now have a fair idea that stomach pain after running can be managed quite easily. Most of the time, preventing dehydration during a major race is the key to preventing gastric troubles during and after the race. It has to be kept in mind that dietary changes should only be incorporated into your routine after thorough consultation with a certified nutrition consultant. It is also advisable to steer clear of fad diets and magic health drinks that claim to be perfect for runners.

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