I used to be much more limited by when I ate compared to when I would run. I would need a solid 2 hours, and hopefully 3, after eating before I could comfortably go for a run. I got around this much of the time by running first thing in the morning, before breakfast. I also was not running more than about 5 miles regularly. However, once I began to sign up for a few races, my lack of flexibility in this area was troublesome. Shorter races commonly began later in the morning, and I didn’t like to wait that long to eat. Longer races started earlier, but usually involved some morning prep and travel time in which I would be unacceptably hungry. Even for running longer distances during training time, it’s not that I would run out of energy on the runs, so much as that my very hungry tummy was often very distracting.
Discussing this inconvenience with my husband, a more experienced runner, he told me that he thought I might be able to train myself to eat both closer in time to any of my fitness activities, as well as learn to eat during long events. He was well aware of the fact that I have a much more sensitive digestive system than he does, but he said he used to get more side aches and such while running and it was rarely a problem any more. He suggested I incrementally change my eating habits and see if my gut was trainable.
I reviewed what I had learned about the digestive system as a nurse. Some things would work against me:
- Movement stimulates the gastrointestinal track
- Eating also stimulates it.
- Adrenaline can send it signals to “unload” before a stressor is faced.
I knew a couple of things I might be able to take advantage of:
- Relaxing can make elimination more likely than feeling the pressure of being timed.
- Having a more regular morning routine is often remembered by the body.
Over the next few months, I made progress. I could gradually eat and then run within an hour without feeling inhibited by what was working its way through my stomach. This was partly helped by finding what sorts of foods seemed easier for me to digest. My favorite hot cereal, Malt-O-Meal, with butter, sugar, and a few chocolate chips, always sat well. Another good option was toast with butter and honey. A banana and some real fruit juice could be part of the meal, too. Home made French toast worked, but in general, fried or meaty courses caused gastric rebellion if running soon followed. Foods such as nuts or a lot of fresh fruit, were to be avoided at all cost. So, complex carbohydrates with a bit of fat and a touch of sugar was my optimum formula.
All of this was more important the longer the run or fitness activity was. Since the exercising body has to divert blood supply TO the muscles, AWAY from the digestive system, it seemed the longer digestion was interrupted, the more belligerent the bowels became about processing fried foods or meats and related fats. A 30 minute run didn’t stretch the resources too far, but more than 10 miles running or a brick workout required more care.
It didn’t take me long to discover that it also made a difference what I ate the afternoon and night before a long run the next day. I had to make sure to eat a solid number of calories, but I also had to make sure it was very healthy and did not include a lot of “roughage.” No large bowls of popcorn or big green salads.
The morning routine developed spontaneously. As I knew I needed to wait for at least ___ amount of time, depending on how I was adapting at the time, I would sit and engage in a relaxing activity while eating. I would read or crochet or chat with my girls. I found that this unintentional relaxing worked to my advantage. While it may be difficult to relax by simply telling yourself to, it can be accomplished by adequately distracting yourself. This had the added benefit of helping my body to adopt a more regular routine of when I would “need facilities” in the morning.
Some mornings, it seemed that no matter what else I did “right,” I would feel the need to relieve myself again as soon as I headed out the door. Sometimes more than once. I learned that it was smartest to just turn around and deal with it. Some things cannot be safely ignored. At that point, feeling like I was on a schedule to get through my workout did not seem to help send inhibitory signals. This occasional problem became a good reason to make sure I timed my running or biking or whatever with a buffer of time in which to leave.
When feeling vulnerable or unpredictable about my digestive status for a training run, it helped a lot to have a route that gave me ready access to some sort of facilities or private wayside. I would frequently carry a small stash of toilet paper in a baggy in my hip bag.
Once in a while, I would get a side ache. I used to be inclined to give up on a run if I got a significant side ache. I admit, I was wimpy. Now, however, feeling more determined, I found I could just slow down and try to breath more fully. Almost always the side ache went away within a few minutes. It never affected the overall quality of the run or workout. The only complication with this was last year when it was actually pleurisy, but I learned to tell the difference pretty fast.
Besides making it easier to fit running into my schedule, I was now able to eat a light lunch while riding the spin bike, because that was sometimes how things worked out. It did make a difference, I am sure, that most of my workouts were of moderate intensity. It may be easy to sip a smoothie or munch crackers while riding at a comfortable pace. It is harder and unappealing if doing an interval repetition set.
Swimming was also positively affected by all of this, as I found I could eat important things right before a swim and it would help ward off motion sickness. That is not the only thing done to help, but it is an important factor, especially as I have been having some aging hormones cause me some nausea on a regular basis.
Ironically, I have also been learning how to run, etc, farther without food supplementation during the effort. Currently, I only drink a diluted lemonade for extended running or outdoor biking. I have read various possible explanations of the body chemistry involved in such adaptations. All I know for sure is that particularly when I am running, I dislike trying to eat or chew. So far, up to marathon distance, I have been able to do this. I know of some runners who try longer distances with this basic approach, but most seem to benefit from taking in nutrition for extra long runs. Still, how long “long” is does seem adjustable.
After a long run or extensive outdoor biking, I find I need to eat something easily digestible soon. For shorter activities, my normal eating schedule works. But, I am also a regular snacker, so don’t think me overly disciplined with my meal times.
The gist of it is that I am now much less limited by when I eat compared to when I run. Experimenting gradually with my schedule and running-related food tolerances, as well as patiently training my body to deal with nutrition while active has yielded good results.