Is exercise putting your gut in distress?

We all like to feel the fitness and health benefits that exercise brings, but for some of us, there are unwelcome side effects.

The digestive system has to put up with a lot of disruption when we exercise (think of all that pounding up and down when running, being bent over when cycling, or swallowing water when swimming). In some cases, this can lead to an uncomfortable condition called gastro-intestinal (GI) distress.  

Sporty individuals (particularly endurance athletes) commonly experience GI distress, but it is little talked about. It can be embarrassing to admit to bloating, cramping, wind and loose bowel movements, but studies have shown that between 30%-65% of runners will suffer at some point. This means most people are suffering in silence and simply try to put up with it.

It’s believed there are three main causes of GI problems:

  • Physiological (caused by reduced blood flow to the gut during exercise).
  • Mechanical (bouncing effect of running, for example).
  • Nutritional (such as excess ingestion of carbohydrate/sugary drinks).

Other contributors include alcohol consumption, anti-inflammatory medications (commonly taken for sore muscles and joints), emotional stress and nerves before a race, disease-causing bacteria in lakes and rivers and excess pressure on the abdominal wall through all that exertion.

Ultimately, these symptoms can impair performance and possibly prevent athletes from winning or even finishing a race. However, many nutritional steps can be taken to support the problem! These include:

  • Reducing the fibre content of the diet at key points in the training programme.
  • Adding in probiotics (“friendly” bacteria) and prebiotics (foods that these bacteria love).
  • Using drinks containing different forms of carbohydrates (gentler on the gut) as fuel.

If you want to learn how to avoid GI distress or to help your current symptoms, then a nutritional therapist can support you.


de Oliviera E, Burini R (2014), Carbohydrate-Dependent, Exercise-Induced Gastrointestinal Distress, Nutrients, 6:4191-4199.

Simons S, Kennedy R (2004), Gastrointestinal Problems in Runners, Current Sports Medicine Reports, DOI: 10.1249/00149619-200404000-00011.

Casey E, Mistry D, Macknight J (2005), Training Room Management of Medical Conditions: Sports Gastroenterology, Clinics in Sports Medicine, 24:4191-4199.

Jeukendrup A (2010). Carbohydrate and exercise performance: the role of multiple transportable carbohydrates. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 4:452-457.

Nutritionist Resource is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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