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The runner’s guide to IBS

For people with IBS, running can make their symptoms even worse. Here's what to do about it

stomach issues

Runners love to talk about running. Our personal bests, favourite routes and future race plans all make it into regular discussion, but there is one topic that we tend to avoid: stomach problems. For all its benefits, GI distress is one unfortunate and common issue facing distance runners. In fact, studies suggest that anywhere from 30 to 50 per cent of endurance athletes experience gastrointestinal problems.

While this is a frequent complaint for many runners, a small percentage of them may actually suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). For these athletes, stomach problems are an even more prominent issue, and can turn an enjoyable long run into a mad dash for the nearest washroom. But how do you distinguish between exercise-induced GI distress and IBS, and how can you manage it? 


RELATED: Runner’s guide to avoiding GI distress

What is IBS?

According to the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (CDHF), IBS is characterized by problems with motility (moving digested food through your intestines) and sensitivity (how your brain interprets signals from your intestinal nerves). This can cause abdominal pain and irregular bowel movements, gas and bloating.

There are two types of IBS:

IBS-C: irritable bowel syndrome with constipation.

IBS-D: irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhea.

While many runners have experienced diarrhea symptoms while out for a run (hence the term “runner’s trots”), the symptoms of IBS go far beyond what might be considered “normal.” For IBS sufferers, running can make their already unpleasant symptoms even worse.

How does running make IBS worse?

Running can relax the bowel and encourage a more regular bowel movement, which for most of us is a good thing. For people who already struggle with increased bowel sensitivity, that relaxation makes things worse. There are a few reasons why this might be the case:

  • There is reduced blood flow to your intestines during exercise.
  • The stress of running reduces the function of your GI tract.
  • High-intensity activity can cause inflammation in your stomach and intestines.

Studies have determined that less than three per cent of endurance athletes have been medically diagnosed with IBS, but most distance runners who suffer from the condition go undiagnosed. Unfortunately, there is no definitive test for IBS, and most doctors will use your medical history and physical tests to rule out other conditions before they conclude that IBS is the problem.

Can you treat IBS?

There is currently no treatment for the condition, and the best thing you can do is manage your symptoms. This means identifying foods that trigger your symptoms and eliminating the ones that appear to be causing problems. 

RELATED: Solutions for the GI-distressed runner

Unfortunately, many common and healthy foods (such as high FODMAP foods) and sports drinks and gels that runners take during races also tend to trigger GI distress and IBS. For runners who struggle with IBS, here are a few tips to help you avoid a mid-race dash to the porta-potty:

  • Select your sports gels or drinks carefully, and always test them out on a run before race day. 
  • Always ensure you drink enough water when you consume a sports gel to improve absorption.
  • Limit your intake of high-fibre and high-fat foods before a run or race.
  • Avoid eating less than two hours before a run or race.
  • Follow a pre-race routine that helps you reduce stress and stay calm to avoid upsetting your stomach.
  • If you’re still struggling, talk with your doctor about medications that will help ease your symptoms.

GI distress can ruin a good run and thwart your efforts for a PB on race day. If you suffer from IBS, these issues can be even worse. While there may not be a cure for the condition, it can be managed to allow you to enjoy running without the pain, discomfort or embarrassment.

RELATED: Gut-training can decrease gastrointestinal symptoms in ultrarunning events

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