How to Keep a Happy Stomach On the Road
Long treks to faraway races can wreak havoc on your gut—and performance. Presenting six expert tips to help prevent digestive upset during your next tri journey.
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A bike mechanical failure or death by mass swim start are real race-day concerns, but many triathletes confess fears akin to a missed PR on account of time spent in a Porta-Potty sidelined with digestive woes. The potential for gastrointestinal distress at a destination race is even more worrisome, given the physical jostling, high stress, lack of sleep, and unfamiliar foods that come with travel. With all the training and financial investment ahead of your next big race adventure, consider the following active steps you can take to ensure optimal gut health when hitting the road.
The best way to keep your digestive system strong is to prevent it from weakening in the first place. Diverse gut microflora and good overall motility are signs of strong gut integrity. Eating a diet rich in plant-based foods and aiming for high fiber are staples of a healthy gut, but some athletes also swear by regimens such as going lactose- and/or gluten-free. For endurance athletes, the gluten-free trend may limit overall carbohydrate and nutrient intake, so it’s a path best taken by those with a medically proven gluten intolerance. Similarly, seeking out plant-based milks (instead of lactose-containing dairy) may prove effective at reducing discomfort—bloating, diarrhea, and/or gas—for the athlete who is indeed lactose intolerant. For everyone else, why forego?
School Yourself on FODMAPs
Not sensitive to lactose but having similar symptoms? You might consider a lower FODMAP intake. FODMAPs, or Fermentable Oligo-Saccharides, Di-Saccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols, are groups of carbohydrates (sugars and fibers) purported to be poorly absorbed in people with digestive sensitivities, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). FODMAPs are common in carb-containing foods: dairy, grains, fruits, and foods with added fibers and sugar alcohols. It’s theorized that these foods can trigger abdominal pain, bloating, gas, constipation, and/or diarrhea in some people. (A low FODMAP diet was created by researchers at Monash University in Australia; visit Monashfodmap.com for more information.)
Are you getting enough healthy fiber? The average adult consumes a woeful 17 grams of it each day, even though the daily recommendation is 14 grams per 1,000 calories consumed. Habitual healthy fiber intake can improve gut health and cholesterol levels, and assure good gut motility without causing GI distress. Seek out whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables to fill your plate, and plan ahead to fuel your race travels so you needn’t stray into the fast food drive-thru.
Looking for a gut-pleasing superfood? Scientists have found that cranberry compounds—known as proanthocyanidins (PACs)—help reinforce the protective functions of the gut barrier. In addition, the gut can ferment the carbs in cranberries, creating a biproduct that effectively nourishes the beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract. With the added potential of reducing gut inflammation, be sure to add daily servings of cranberries—dried, cocktail, or 100-percent juice—to your prerace road-trip carb load.
Give your gut a dose of beneficial bacteria from familiar favorites like kombucha and sauerkraut, and boost your intake of probiotics with foods like yogurt. Be sure to first try these options during training rather than at your destination event. Cali a Farm’s Probiotic Dairy Free Yogurt with a potent 10 billion CFUs (live and active micro-organisms); Saverne sauerkraut (which comes in portable, resealable pouches and trendy flavors); and GT’s Living Foods Kombucha (available in a variety of flavors, with added beneficial ingredients like chia and watermelon) are just some of the options.
Lastly, dry airplanes and stressful travel can wreak havoc on your usual digestion pattern. Don’t freak out if you experience constipation at your race destination. Move things along by drinking warm beverages, taking care to avoid high-sugar hot chocolates and sugary coffees that can pull more water into the gut and lead to distention and slow emptying. Sugar-free co ee and tea, or water with lemon, can spark gut motility, but drink cautiously and avoid too much caffeine, which can speed things along in the extreme.
Pamela Nisevich Bede is a certified sports nutrition expert focusing on endurance performance and weight management. You can find her at SwimBikeRunEat.com.