There’s nothing more uncomfortable than realizing, mid ride, that the coffee you drank or the ride food you recently ate is not sitting well in your stomach.
With every pedal stroke there’s a nauseating turn in your stomach.
You start to lose focus on your cadence.
Your heart is pounding louder, and louder.
Sweat is now pouring out from every single pore on your body.
Right now all you can focus on is the nearest bush and how fast you can dismount from your bike only to pull a “Dumoulin” on the side of the road.
Trust me, I’ve been there, and some of you probably have too. It’s an uncomfortable feeling and one that a lot of endurance athletes are faced with. However, I’m here to let you know that you are not alone if you experience digestive issues when training, and I’ve got some ideas that I think will help.
To drive my point home…
Who here remembers stage 16 from the 2017 Giro d’Italia where pink jersey leader, Tom Dumoulin, made a frantic pit stop in the middle of the race to take care of some (cough, cough) “business” on the side of the road. I don’t know about you, but I had yet to see a professional athlete “taking care of business” in a race, let alone it being televised during a professional cycling tour. That right there is in your face proof that even the pro’s experience digestive stress from time to time (as it is a common among athletes). And while digestive distress does not always mean pooping your pants in the middle of a race, it sure can be a major inconvenience no matter how it shows up.
So while that video of Dumoulin looked pretty painful, I’m here to tell you that that doesn’t have to be you. If we can understand what is causing our digestive distress and how to prevent it then we are half way there, and that much more informed.
Here are 5 reasons why you may experience digestive distress and ways you can work towards improving your digestion, especially on the bike.
- Eating in a sympathetic state. This means being in fight or flight mode. Most often when we are training we are reaching into our back jersey pockets to refuel as we continue to ride. We never actually stop. This truly is eating in a sympathetic state at its finest. The same thing can be said for long distance runners who eat GU’s, gels, and bars while pounding the pavement. It’s no wonder many of us have digestive stress when training as we are constantly eating on the go. Our body never has a chance to relax and prepare for digestion. So how can we change this scenario and better support our digestive system? For starters, the opposite of eating in a sympathetic state would be to eat in a parasympathetic state. Being in a parasympathetic state means to be in a state of rest and digest, and a state of repair and recovery. When we are relaxed, calm, and able to enjoy our food, enjoy the flavors, and enjoy the company around us we allow ourselves to be in a parasympathetic state. So how can you do that on the bike? To be honest, if you want to refuel during a ride and be in a parasympathetic state you would need to actually stop, park your bike, and go sit down to relax and enjoy your food. Refueling in a parasympathetic state is not an easy one if you never leave your bike. However, having the awareness is key.
- Eating too fast and not chewing your food. If you never leave your bike and you don’t have a chance to refuel in a parasympathetic state, the next thing you can work on is chewing your food well and chewing it slow. It’s often when we are in a sympathetic, high stress state that we tend to do the 1-2-3 chew and swallow, allowing large quantities of foods to enter our digestive system without actually ever being broken down by our mouth and our teeth. It is here that we also experience digestive stress. It becomes very tough and demanding on our digestive system to try and further break down the whole food pieces that we just so frantically inhaled. Take the time to breath and slowly chew your bars, your croissants, your bananas, or whatever your preferred source of fuel. There’s literally no rush.
- Not producing enough HCL. HCL, known as hydrochloric acid is produced in your stomach during the digestion process. It’s in those moments when your brain starts to think about food, the taste of food, and the way food smells, your body begins to produce saliva and HCL to get itself ready for the digestion process. It’s when we do not produce enough HCL that the body has a tough time breaking down our food. This causes digestive distress as undigested food moves from our stomach, to our small intestine, and later our large intestine where it then moves down the line and is excreted from our body. If you’ve ever noticed food particles in your bowel movements, that is a clear sign that you are not properly breaking down and digesting particular foods. This can happen from low HCL production and not chewing our food properly before digestion begins. So how can you teach your body to produce more HCL? First, by eating in parasympathetic state and slowing things down you can train your brain and your vagus nerve to better prepare for meals and digestion by making the right amount of HCL when you are ready to eat. Second, you can take an HCL supplement before your meals. A good quality HCL supplement will help in the digestion process and relieve you from any extra bloat, gas, or upset stomach when finishing your meals. It’s important to note that even if you decide to supplement with HCL you will still want to continue to chew thoroughly and eat slowly. It can also be best to work with a nutritional therapy practitioner to understand if you need HCL, how much, and how often.
- Food allergies and sensitivities. While you might think you know what foods allergies you have, chances are you may have more allergies than you think. Some of the most common food allergies today are gluten, dairy, soy, sesame, coconut, corn, and nut allergies (allergy may vary depending on the nut). If you find yourself in a state of constant discomfort and digestive distress after consuming any of these foods, especially off of the bike, chances are you probably have an allergy. However, not all food allergies show up in the form of digestive distress. Some may show up in the form of acne, rashes, hives, headaches, weight gain, and so on. If you’re not sure where you stand when it comes to food allergies and food sensitivities, consider working with a nutritional therapy practitioner. I would even recommend adding a WHOLE 30 to your to-do list. It’s an elimination diet that focuses on clean eating for 30 days. After the 30 days are over, you are shown how to re-introduce foods into your diet as a way to determine if you are actually allergic or sensitive to those foods. Now 30 days might seem like an eternity, but trust me when I say it goes by really quick, especially when you’re revved up on all the natural energy you now have from eating clean, real, whole foods!
- Anxiety and jitters. This one is fairly self-explanatory. Anxiety and jitters before a big race can be an easy way to, well, clear out your system. Studies have shown that patients with anxiety saw a faster gastrointestinal transit time (2) as well as experiencing symptoms anywhere from diarrhea to nausea (1). With that said, do your best to stay calm and collected for your race or event, and less anxious. My advice to you would be to take things easy, relax, and be prepared. Set out your ride food, your cycling wardrobe, and any other “day of” essentials you think you will need the night before. Being prepared will help make your race day morning (or afternoon) less chaotic and anxiety filled, and more relaxing and enjoyable. You may also find that you aren’t running to the bathroom every 15 minutes. However, if you start to catch yourself flustered, over excited, or anxious, STOP yourself and take 3 – 5 deep breath inhalations. This should help to calm your nerves back down. And because we are all bio-individual, some of us may tolerate the excitement better than others.
So when in doubt, stick to the foods you know work for you. If you’re interested in trying out a new ride food, go for it! But make sure it’s not on race day. Test it out on a few training rides before hand and make sure it works for your needs, and it isn’t upsetting your stomach.
Get off the bike for a restful snack break (if time permits), chew your food slowly, thoroughly, and take a few deep breaths between bites.
Avoid inflammatory and stressful foods in your diet (food allergies and sensitivities) that may cause you digestive stress on the bike, or in your daily routine. If you’re not sure what foods you are allergic or sensitive to, consider working with a nutritional therapy practitioner, like myself. I can help you to identify current food sensitivities and ways to restructure your fueling needs around them.
As always, it’s important to remember to listen to your body. You know the difference between feeling great after a meal vs. feeling like crap (bloated, gas, nausea, tired). I like my clients to keep a journal and write down those times that they’ve felt poorly. I ask them to write down details like what it was they ate, at what time, what where they doing, and how did it make them feel. This exercise may be beneficial to some of you, and you may be surprised at what you find!
Here’s to happy digestion and happy training!
Laura McQueen, NTP
*Since the writing of this article there has actually been an update on Tom Dumoulin and the reason why he had such horrible stomach problems during the 2017 Giro d’Italia.
Sounds like Tom’s stomach issues were caused by food allergies. Nothing a little investigating couldn’t solve, as I’m sure he probably didn’t want a repeat of that happening again this year.