Running is a high impact sport, which means that not only are our muscles and joints absorbing the load, but our organs are also being bounced around. Makes sense that this constants motion could lead to digestive issues for many runners.
Often we talk about this in relation to runners trots or less pleasantly named runners diarrhea.
But the truth is you don’t have to have a full blown bathroom situation to have some pretty uncomfortable feelings.
There are a number of potential causes and solutions to stomach pains while running that apply whether you’re a new or experienced runner. It can happen to us all, so let’s try to prevent them or at least manage the symptoms from a pain below your rib cage to right in the gut.
Cause Of Stomach Cramps While Running
It’s important to know there’s a difference between a side stitch while running and a stomach cramp. We’re focused on the gut here and the major reasons your stomach might hurt during a run.
If you’re nervous about a new long run, a particular workout or race day it’s much more likely you’ll have stomach distress.
As your anxiety level rises, the body starts pumping out more cortisol (stress hormone). A hormone that’s already going to increase during the run, but which can have the effect of increasing stomach acid.
I talk a lot about fueling prior to your runs, but a stomach that is overloaded isn’t going to feel great either.
Blood flow is being diverted from your digestive track to your muscle to ensure you have the energy you need to keep running. But that means food is not being broken down efficiently and your stomach eventually feels overworked leading to abdominal cramps.
It’s not just your muscles that need water to keep functioning. Your digestive system is going to slow down and eventually that’s going to lead to stomach cramps.
Lack of a Warm Up
If you’ve read anything else I’ve written, you aren’t surprised to see this on the list.
A dynamic warm up has been shown to prevent injuries, lubricate joints and make the overall effort feel easier. The harder the run is on your body, the shallower your breathing will be, which then leads to cramping.
Too Much Sugar
Sports drinks are a great tool for helping us to stay on top of electrolytes and prevent other kinds of muscle cramps and fatigue. BUT there is a lot of data to show that too much is going to lead to stomach issues.
Sports drinks are designed to increase hydration. Sucking down more means the body is holding more water for your muscles which can cause a feeling of bloating and then you add in a bunch of gels and it’s a recipe for runner’s gut.
30-60 grams of sugar per hour of exercise is what’s usually recommended. If you have a lot of stomach issues it can help to vary the source. Meaning sipping a drink like Tailwind, eating ClifBloks and dates…so you vary the type of sugar during the run.
How To Prevent Stomach Cramps While Running
Great now we know why our body might throw off this unpleasant signal that something is amiss during our run. If it’s happening to you more than once in awhile it never hurts to get medical advice.
But here are some things that can help:
If you’re eating a full meal then wait 90 minutes to 2 hours before running. This gives your body enough time to break things down and doesn’t ask your stomach to continue working with less blood flow.
Most people will do fine with a small snack prior to a run or even a small breakfast of 100-200 calories that contains simple carbs. Like a slice of sourdough bread and a tablespoon of nut butter.
Keep a Food Log
Start keeping a quick log of what you eat and drink before a run. Also a great idea to note what you eat the night before a long run, as that can play a role.
It could be that specific foods are aggravating your stomach and that shows up during the run.
Milk is an extremely common issue, which makes sense when visualizing that hot milk curdles!
You might also find that you’re eating a little more fiber close to the run than you thought or that you don’t do as well with a lot of fat pre-run. It works great for many of us doing easy long runs, but that doesn’t mean it’s best for you.
BONUS: Taking a probiotic has helped a lot of our athletes resolve issues with the gut while running. It works to improve the health of your gut, which is going to lessen issues.
Sip, Don’t Guzzle Electrolytes
Staying hydrated all day long is key. The body is water and it needs it for all of your organs to function at their best, plus a dehydrated muscle is more likely to be overworked and tada…cramp.
But during your run it’s also important to make sure that you sip rather than guzzle.
Coffee or other forms of caffeine can stimulate the digestive tract. I mean a lot of you know this because it makes you…well go!
Obviously during the run that activation along with the acidity can lead to uncomfortable stomach aches and pains.
Reduce Your Effort
If the cramps are coming on consistently on easy runs then it’s often a good sign you’re still running too hard for your current fitness level.
Remember that easy runs are designed to build your aerobic base, helping to increase your endurance and overall fitness. They are not days to be focused on your watch.
Stop with the NSAIDs
I’ve actually done an entire article on the dangers of taking pain relievers prior to running. But for our purpose here what you need to know is this could be the cause of your side cramps or stitches!
A study of ultra runners found that those who were taking NSAIDS in advance of pain, “just to be safe”, ended up feeling worse during the run and were more likely to deal with stomach upset.
Practice Better Breathing
If a cramp comes on in the middle of a run, try slowing down to a walk. Then start taking some deep belly breaths.
We want to get as much oxygen in to the body and to all of the muscles as possible. Plus, that action deep breathing tells the body it’s ok to relax and we want relaxation ASAP.
Hopefully these tips help you prevent future stomach cramps while running!
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