How to Avoid Gastrointestinal Problems During Exercise

What should I eat or drink when exercising?


Many gastrointestinal (GI) problems can occur even if one trys to avoid eating before or during exercise. Studies suggest that approximately 30-50% of athletes experience some type of gastrointestinal issue that can impair performance and delay recovery.

The three main causes of GI problems:

1) Physiological
2) Mechanical
3)  Nutritional

During intense exercise, especially when dehydrated, blood flow to the intestines is reduced. This is believed to be one of the main factors leading to the development of GI symptoms.

General Symptoms:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • abdominal angina
  • bloody diarrhea
  • other abdominal symptoms (from mild discomfort to sever ischemic colitis)

Classification of Symptoms:

1) Lower GI Tract
2) Upper GI Tract


Runners tend to experience lower GI tract symptoms such as flatulence (excessive gas), diarrhea, or urgency due to the repetitive impact and reduced blood flow to the gut. On the other hand, cyclists may experience upper GI tract symptoms  due to the increased pressure on their abdomen while in an “aero” or crunched position of the body. These mechanical effects may be minimized with training.

Tips for Athletes:

1) Avoid high fiber foods in the day and several days before competition
2) During training, diet with adequate fiber will keep the bowel regular
3) Avoid aspiring and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
4) Use of NSAIDs prior to a race is strongly discouraged, especially for athletes with a history of GI problems
5) Avoid high-fructose foods (especially drinks that exclusively contain fructose)
6) Avoid dehydration as it can excaerbate symptoms and start races well hydrated
7) Ingest carbohydrates with sufficient water or drinks with lower carbohydrate concentration to prevent very high concentrations and osmolalities in the stomach
8) Practise new nutrition strategies and make sure to experiment with pre-race and race-day nutrition plan many times before the race day to reduce the chance of GI symptoms from occurring

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