Getting ready to work out is often the hardest part of exercising. You need a plan, a place to do it, the right kind of clothes, good shoes, and enough energy.
Caffeine can help you feel more energetic — but so can certain foods. Unfortunately, some of the same foods that athletes rely on for quick energy — including protein bars and some fruits — may also cause a range of unwelcome symptoms including gas, bloating, and even diarrhoea. (Endurance athletes might know the symptoms linked with some of these foods as “runner’s trots.”)
The problem is that many so-called “power” foods contain a type of simple carbohydrate known as FODMAPs (Fermentable, Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides and Polyols) that our small intestine has a rough time processing. Ironically, they’re also a frequent ingredient on many protein and energy bars. Oligosaccharides, for example, are also typically found in wheat and some types of legumes — two ingredients that are repeat offenders on protein bars since the carbohydrates in wheat are a great source of quick energy and the protein in legumes (i.e. soy-based protein) help power muscles. The same goes for disaccharides, the kind of FODMAP frequently found in milk (i.e. whey protein).
Other FODMAPs include fruits like apples, pears, and watermelon; vegetables like asparagus and celery; dairy products like milk and cheese; legumes like lentils and chickpeas; and many breads or wheat-based cereals.
Most of what we know about FODMAPs today comes from Peter Gibson, a professor of gastroenterology at Monash University in Australia. In 2011, Gibson spearheaded a study into gluten sensitivity which found that in many cases, people who believe they are sensitive to gluten are really sensitive to another ingredient in many gluten-containing foods — FODMAPs. When Gibson placed the people with self-identified “gluten sensitivity” on a low-FODMAP diet, their symptoms — gas, bloating, discomfort — vanished.
In later studies, Gibson found that people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) were especially sensitive to FODMAPs. Similarly, slashing these foods from their diet was recently found to be helpful for many.
If you’re a healthy person who also happens to be an athlete, FODMAPs may also be a source of discomfort.
Whether you’re a long-distance runner, a swimmer, a sprinter, or a power yogi, intense physical training can put the body under a significant amount of stress. That includes the digestive system. A study in the journal Current Sports Medicine Reports found that up to 71% of long-distance runners experience abdominal cramping and diarrhoea.
A case study published last year in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism on a male athlete with no diagnosed gastrointestinal disorder found that six days on a low-FODMAP diet (compared with six days on a traditional diet) appeared to significantly reduce his symptoms, which included gas, bloating, and cramping.
And while more research is needed to show that the experiences of this individual could be generalized to larger groups of athletes, the evidence base suggesting that a low-FODMAP diet could help reduce gastrointestinal issues is growing.
If you experience these symptoms before, during, or after your workout, it could be worth talking to your physician about it and perhaps trying out an alternative source of fuel.