4 Tips for Avoiding Stomach Issues in Ultras

Trail Runner Nation is pleased to share this guest article from Matt Bach. Matt won Ironman Maryland in 2014 with a time of 8:51, was the top amateur and 6th overall at Eagleman 70.3 in 2015, then 72nd overall in Kona, Hawaii, in 2015. Matt has been a runner since high school and has competed in many marathons, road and trail races. He lives in Roseland, New Jersey with his wife, two kids, and two long-haired miniature dachshunds.

We discovered Matt’s story because he works for one of our partners, the nutrition company UCAN, as the Director of their Endurance business. We thought some of his discoveries during his triathlon career would be directly useful to our Trail Runner Nation community, and asked Matt to share his experience here, with our community.

We hope it helps you when you’re out on the trail!

If you’re like me, you’ve had stomach problems before while training and racing ultra-distance events. It’s a brutal situation that greatly diminishes the enjoyment of running, and our performances while racing. I’ve had my fair share of nutrition problems, but through the help of experts, I’ve been able to work through them and see astonishing success because of it.


“I just can’t.”


That’s what I said to myself seven hours into my IRONMAN when I was three bottles of sugary sports drink down and six gels deep. The first gel went down easily, but even the thought of something sugary at this point was making me sick, and I’d already defiled two porta-potties. I couldn’t stop taking in fuel or I’d bonk and be reduced to walking. But I couldn’t take in any more nutrition because my stomach hurt, and that fuel would probably just come back up anyway.


This all-too-common dilemma is experienced by upwards of 96% of endurance athletes in ultramarathon races, and often during longer training sessions too.


After three years in the sport, I had tried nearly every sports nutrition product out there and failed to meet my potential in my ultra-distance races due to nutritional issues. I was fed up, so I reached out to a sports nutritionist, hoping to get these issues nailed down for good. She worked with me on daily diet adjustments, a different carb source named UCAN and designed a new race nutrition plan for me.

Three months later, I put my new nutrition plan to the test at IRONMAN Maryland, and for the first time ever in an ultra-distance event, I had zero GI distress and zero bonking issues. I was able to run strong the whole way like I knew I could: 20 minutes faster than I ever had before over the course of the marathon to run 3 flat. I had a 51-minute PR for a total time of 8 hours 51 minutes.

I won the race.


It was an epiphany moment for me. I came to understand the impact of nutrition on performance.

Matt Bach having his breakthrough win at IRONMAN Maryland 2014 after overcoming the GI problems that plagued his previous races. (Courtesy photo.)


After chatting with my sports nutritionist, and also with former Olympic Dietitian Bob Seebohar– who was a recent guest on Trail Runner Nation— I learned that gastrointestinal distress can be a thing of the past for many of us trail runners and triathletes.

I learned what we currently know about “GI” distress, why it happens, and how to fix it.

Here’s the scoop.

First, let’s define gastrointestinal distress, so we’re all starting with the same understanding. GI distress is digestive discomfort associated with bloating, stomach aches, sloshing, nausea, vomiting, reflux and diarrhea.

Marathon great Sara Hall fueling up before a trail run. (Courtesy photo.)


There are 4 Important Facts We Know About GI Distress:


1.) Blood flow to the stomach is impaired during exercise.
During exercise, our body directs blood flow to the working muscles, so less blood flow is directed to the stomach. “With reduced blood flow, your stomach struggles to digest food,” Olympic Dietitian Bob Seebohar says. “Needing to eat 300-plus calories per hour of simple sugar or maltodextrin-based products is at odds with your body’s ability to absorb them.”


2.) Osmolality matters.
Osmolality is the term for how quickly a fluid can leave your stomach. Most sports drinks and gels are composed of simple sugars such as fructose, glucose or maltodextrin, or some combination of those three. All of those sugars have fairly high osmolality.

“High osmolality means that there are lots of small molecules in a given space, and each one of them needs to be transported, by water, through the stomach barrier and into the gut,” Seebohar says. “Since this process takes time and requires lots of water, it means fluids can slosh around in the stomach for a while, potentially causing problems.”

A solution that has lower osmolality will clear the stomach more quickly, thereby reducing or even entirely eliminating sloshing, stomach aches and bloating.

The osmolality of UCAN is dramatically lower than sugar or maltodextrin-based sports nutrition, making UCAN very easy on the stomach. (Image courtesy of Matt Bach.)


3.) Dehydration exacerbates GI distress.
Since sugary carbohydrates require water molecules to transport them out of the stomach, it makes sense that being dehydrated can contribute to GI distress. “Without enough water, you have a hypertonic solution in your stomach, and your body will actually draw water from elsewhere, through a process called reverse osmosis, so that it has the water necessary to transport those molecules through the stomach and into the gut,” says Seebohar. “Drawing water from other parts of your body, in turn, leads to further dehydration, which leads to further GI distress.” This is why GI distress is even more common at notoriously hot races like Badwater or Western States.

Ultrarunner Coree Woltering racing Arizona’s Black Canyon 60k– he also raced the 100k the day before! Woltering has put a lot of effort into dialing in his nutrition to avoid stomach problems. (Courtesy photo.)

4.) GI distress plagues runners more than other sports.
Typical heart rates while running are about 5 to 10 beats higher than while cycling, swimming and most other endurance sports. Also, all sorts of jostling occurs while running, and sweat rates for runners are very high leading to dehydration which, as we already learned, can exacerbate GI distress.

These four facts lead us right here:

4 Tips to Avoiding Stomach Problems
1.) Avoid dehydration since it will exacerbate, or even cause, GI distress.


2.) Avoid overdoing it with sugar and use a fuel source (yes, like UCAN) instead, since its low osmolality makes it extraordinarily easy on the stomach.


3.) Eat at the right time so that your meals and solid foods don’t sit heavily in your stomach.


4.) Eat the right foods within 24 hours of a big race or workout. Avoid fiber and fats, and prioritize easy to digest carbohydrates with a bit of protein.

While I can’t promise you will win an Ultra or an IRONMAN by heeding this advice, you are now armed with the knowledge of why GI distress happens, and what to do to prevent it. So go forth and conquer your goals– whatever they may be!

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