I will never forget the demise of my third full marathon. Despite having two young children and being in school full time, I had still somehow managed to put in a decent amount of training. I had set a realistic finishing time goal, and headed out with the very large pace group, hell-bent on hitting that goal. And I felt FANTASTIC. We flew through the first 13 miles effortlessly. Or at least that was my perceived effort. I waved to my sister and grinned from ear to ear as we passed her somewhere around mile 14.
Then it hit me.
Out of nowhere, my stomach started doing cartwheels, and my focus quickly shifted from my goal finishing time to finding a port-a-potty, and finding one immediately. Unfortunately, the gastrointestinal distress did not subside, and I spent the next 11 miles darting from one aid station to the next, praying to the running gods that there would be an available port-a-potty.
Six years later I can look back on this story and laugh, but the truth is almost every single runner has a similar story of when their digestive system decided to ruin a perfectly good race or training run. And although the unpredictability of gastrointestinal distress can’t be completely avoided, there are a number of steps you can take that may help prevent digestive issues in the first place.
Never try something new on race day.
This is perhaps the golden rule of racing. In addition to the obvious things, like a brand new pair of shoes, race day is not the time to try a new nutrition gel or powdered electrolyte drink. Instead use the same nutrition and hydration strategy that you have trained with all along (assuming it worked), because you know how your body will react to those specific products.
Don’t go crazy “carb loading.”
For some reason, people seem to have this idea that the night before a race they need to completely gorge themselves on pasta, bread, and other refined carbohydrates. But the kicker is they almost never do the same thing the night before a training run. So why overfill your stomach now? All of those extra calories—especially if it’s food that’s harder to digest—are going to sit heavy in your stomach, potentially causing issues the next morning when you line up for a race. Instead, eat the same or a very similar meal to what you would eat before a longer training run.
Dehydration can do a number on your digestive system, so make sure you are staying hydrated. On the flip side, overhydration or an imbalance of electrolytes can also throw your stomach out of whack. Similar to carbohydrate loading, there is no reason to go crazy when it comes to hydration or electrolytes simply because it’s race day. Use the exact same hydration strategy that you’ve used and had success with during training.
Avoid what ails you.
For some people, that includes high fiber foods or artificial sweeteners; others may have a hard time with fatty foods or lactose. If you know you have a specific nutritional item that triggers stomach issues, avoid it for a few days prior to (and obviously during) the race.
Develop pre-race bathroom rituals.
I speak from experience with this one, and it’s potentially too much information, but bear with me. Race mornings can completely throw your body out of its normal routine, especially when you add in early alarm clocks and a ton of nerves. If you find yourself rushed and nervous race morning, you might be unable to take care of your “business” as you usually would (and by business, I mean bowels. Yes, poop. We’re talking poop.)
If this is an issue for you, give yourself plenty of time to get ready and relax race morning, and hopefully get things “moving,” if you know what I mean.
When it comes to race day, absolutely nothing is guaranteed. But taking these precautions can hopefully help ensure that the finish line—and not the next port-a-potty—is your race day focus.