A happy stomach makes for happy running. We focus so much on our workouts, our gear, and our training plans, but all of that can be derailed with an upset stomach. Runner’s trots, urgent trips to the bathroom, stomach cramps, and GI distress are no foreign concept to runners, especially those who spend several hours a week out on the roads or trails in training for a long distance event. Stomach aches, nausea, and loss of appetite are also common after a run.
While many of us runners pay close attention to our nutrition, we may be neglecting our gut health. I know I certainly was until recently, when the extra physical stress of marathon training starting wreaking havoc on my (already sensitive) stomach. I always made sure to eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins, but I wasn’t specifically incorporating high-probiotic foods into my diet, except the occasional yogurt.
Here’s the catch-22 that many of us runners face: to build speed and endurance, we have to place training stress on our body, whether that stress comes from intensity, volume, or a combination of the two. You are able to run faster and farther when you muscles repair the damage from the training load and adapt to become stronger. However, that same training stress that is beneficial to our running and overall health and fitness can have immediate, noticeable, and sometimes negative impact on our gut.
By no means does this mean that we should stop training for our goal race or chasing down our PRs! Rather, this means that when we train hard for a race, we should pay close attention to our stomachs and give our guts a little bit extra love in the form of probiotics.
Probiotic Health Benefits for Runners
Hippocrates, widely known as the father of medicine, believed that all disease began in the gut. Because of how everything in our bodies is interconnected, gut health can positively or negatively affect our immune system, nervous system, and hormones. Poor levels of gut flora (bacteria) can also increase inflammation in our bodies. While inflammation does have a purpose—inflammation is a vital part of the healing and adaptation process of training—too much inflammation that persists over too long of a time can lead to chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation can then contribute to cancer, heart disease, arthritis, and other illnesses. Chronic inflammation is also a key symptom of diseases such as Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and endometriosis.
The problem with inflammation is that it can perpetuate itself. If our bodies keep trying to heal themselves, such in the case of poor gut health, the inflammation will just keep building to try to fight the pre-existing inflammation. Whether you suffer from chronic inflammation or you have a seemingly healthy stomach, it is beneficial to eat a diet high in probiotics to promote good gut bacteria and decrease inflammation.
Numerous and various factors in our lives can wreak havoc on our gut bacteria, including stress, medications such as antibiotics or the birth control pill, a diet high in processed foods, overtraining, and other things. Pretty much, living a basic human life, with the up and downs of stress, the occasional indulgence in fried or sugary foods, and normal medications can mess up our gut bacteria, which makes it even more important to eat foods that promote good bacteria in our gut. When you add intense training to this, your gut bacteria can really get off balance and cause GI issues.
This, in part, is why overtraining (too much running combined with too little recovery or too much life stress) can lead to digestive issues and loss of appetite. The stress of overtraining messes with the gut flora just as much as any other stress.
By eating probiotics and increasing the levels of good gut flora, you can reduce inflammation in your body and minimize digestive issues. That way, when race day rolls around, your stomach is less at risk for suffering from the trots or other GI distress. Needless to say, the probiotic health benefits for runners do not apply only to race day; as I said earlier, a happy stomach makes for a happy runner!
Gut bacteria and gut health are extensive topics, so I am not going to discuss them in-depth today. One of the best and simplest ways to promote the growth of good bacteria in your gut is by eating a diet rich in probiotics.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms found in food that can modify the flora (bacteria) in our bodies to our benefit. For all of you food and history geeks out there (like myself), they were first discovered in 1907, and research since then has found that they can help treat gastrointestinal distress, diarrhea, lactose intolerance, high blood pressure, IBS, and even the common cold. As stated above, probiotics aid in digestion and protect your gut against bad bacteria.
Luckily, it’s not hard to incorporate probiotics into your diet. In fact, it’s quite tasty! Probiotics are found in fermented and cultured foods, including yogurt, kefir, non-dairy kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha (fermented tea), pickled foods, and sourdough bread.
You can also take probiotic supplements, but since I love to eat, I prefer to take eat mine!
What I love about probiotic foods is so many of them can be made from scratch at an affordable price. Lately, I’ve been really into making my own fermented foods and will be including the recipes in my upcoming eCookbook (see the sidebar for more info). You don’t need a big kitchen, hours of free time, or fancy equipment to do so. In fact, most fermented foods requires just a couple basic ingredients, such as cabbage and salt or bread and water, and some patience! Sourdough bread, sauerkraut, and pickles are the easiest fermented foods to make on your own,
Ready to include probiotics in your diet? Try some of these recipes!
Peaches and Cream Kefir Oatmeal from yours truly
Creamy Blueberry Broccoli Slaw with Kefir Yogurt from Cotter Crunch
Sauerkraut and Sourdough Recipes from Mommy Run Fast
How to Make Your Own Sourdough Starter from The Kitchn
Continuous Brew Kombucha from Wellness Mama
(Please note that I am not a medical professional, so I don’t know everything there is to know about inflammation. Probiotics are not a cure-all: eating sauerkraut is certainly not going to make my endometriosis disappear! Rather, I am merely supplying you with information that you can use in coordination with your health professionals to make the most of your nutrition and healthy lifestyle. If you suffer from chronic inflammation or severe gastric issues, please consult your doctor.)
Questions of the Day:
What aspects of sports nutrition do you find the most beneficial?
Does anyone suffer from more stomach problems as they increase their training load?
Do you take probiotic supplements or eat probiotic foods regularly?
Receive Weekly Running Tips & Motivation
Subscribe for my weekly newsletter and receive a free download of injury prevention exercises for runners.