Gut Reaction: Solutions for Exercise-Related Stomach Problems
When Exercise Causes Stomach Problems
Of the more glamorous things you can do in a day, exercise probably isn't one of them. The farmer's blow, the turn and spit, the squat and pee -- we've been there too. Spend enough time running, biking, or hiking in the great outdoors and you learn to get comfortable with bodily functions not discussed in polite conversation. But no matter how seasoned you may be, coming to terms with a queasy stomach isn't easy. Those who've dashed for the Porta Potty midrace or sprinted to the ladies' room during Spinning class know what we mean.
If it's any consolation, you're not alone. A recent study found that up to 50 percent of athletes deal with GI problems. Other experts put the number even higher. "About 95 percent of my clients experience some GI problem over the course of their career," says Krista Austin, PhD, a coach and founder of Performance and Nutrition Coaching in Colorado Springs. The most frequent symptoms read like a Pepto-Bismol jingle: nausea, heartburn, indigestion, and diarrhea.
Women are more likely to experience tummy troubles during a workout than men are; hormones may be to blame. "Out of the 25,000 patients we see each year, 60 percent are women, and they outnumber men in diagnoses of functional GI disorders, like irritable bowel syndrome," says gastroenterologist J. Thomas LaMont, MD, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "Exercise, especially running, tends to bring out symptoms." And though gastrointestinal distress isn't usually a health threat, embarrassing symptoms can prevent women from getting help and discourage them from exercising altogether.
Here's how it happens: When you begin your workout, the muscles you're relying on most -- your quads during a run, for example -- compete with your internal organs for blood. Your organs need blood for digestion; your muscles need it for strength as you exercise. Because the energy demands of your quads are greater, your organs lose out and your body directs up to 80 percent of its blood flow to your legs. In turn, the gastrointestinal system is left with fewer resources with which to digest the food and water you've taken in before or during your workout.
Which is why, 20 minutes into your run, that pizza you ate at lunch may pay a follow-up visit. "Some people can exercise comfortably after wolfing down a meal 15 minutes before a workout. Others can't eat anything within two hours or they'll feel bloated and sluggish," says Bob Murray, PhD, founder of Sports Science Insights, a consulting group that specializes in exercise science and sports nutrition in Fox River Grove, Illinois.
The greater your workout's intensity, the more blood your body will direct away from your digestive system and to your muscles, so you're at higher risk for stomach cramps in a 10K race than on an easy afternoon jog. But even during tough workouts, there are ways to manage uncomfortable gut reactions. The key is to know which side effects are apt to accompany your favorite fitness activity and practice these smart strategies to minimize them.
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