1 Good hydration
It all begins here. When you’re pushing hard blood, which would usually be employed for digestion, is diverted out to the muscles and aerobic system instead, which means your stomach is already working below usual capacity in training or during a race.
You can help it out massively by keeping yourself well hydrated. This will help the flow of digestion as food is more easily broken down.
The key is drinking to thirst rather than sticking to a schedule, which may lead to under or over hydration. The best rules of thumb for managing drinking to thirst are to drink whenever you think about it, and in longer races watch how frequently (or infrequently) you need to pee and what colour it is (clear = good, ‘Tango orange’ = bad). Try to recognise the early signs of thirst.
2 Food choices
What you eat is the biggest determinant in how you feel and perform during exercise, just as it’s also the single biggest determinant in your overall health, or lack of it.
With your stomach already compromised as discussed above, standard sports nutrition advice now involves throwing a lot of synthetic, industrial powder, goo, tablets and chews into the mix. This is stuff so far removed from real food that your body would have a hard time getting through it while lying on the sofa – ingesting it while also putting yourself through the physical stress of endurance sport is rather like running with your shoelaces tied together. It only makes a hard job even harder.
The best foods and fuels for avoiding stomach issues during triathlon are natural, whole foods. Things your body recognises as food instantly and knows exactly what to do with.
Great options include bananas, nuts, peanut butter and jam sandwiches, homemade rice cakes and salted roast potato and/or sweet potato chunks.
3 Timing is everything
Just as with hydration, the key for avoiding stomach issues here lies in listening to your body and responding to its needs, as opposed to trying to stick to a schedule that sees you eating too much and causing problems, or eating too little and running out of gas before the finish line.
Your body’s fuelling needs will vary daily, and just as you don’t eat the exact same meals at the exact same times every day, any use of sports nutrition and intake of food during sport will be no different.
Learning to eat and fuel to hunger is a skill that takes practice, but it’s a key performance skill well worth spending time on. Work invested here will only continue to pay increasing dividends going forwards.
4. Breakfast – what to eat and when to eat it
What to eat for breakfast and when to eat it is a big deal on race day, or at least people make it out to be. In fact it’s still just breakfast. The best advice here is to always stick to your usual breakfast, and in the usual portions.
When travelling for a race, check with the hotel in advance what they have for breakfast and if need be make a dash to the supermarket on arrival to stock up with anything you need they can’t supply. The golden rule to ‘never try anything new on race day’ applies just as much to your breakfast as it does your bike setup, shoes and everything else.
It also applies to pre-race dinners. If you don’t normally precede your training with five plates of pasta the night before, it’s not recommended you suddenly do just that the night before race day either – it will very likely give your stomach the worst possible start.
In terms of breakfast timing, between one and two hours is the best gap between finishing a meal and starting training or racing. Everyone’s different so you’ll need to experiment but try to avoid ever going below an hour as this is where stomach trouble becomes very likely.
5 Immune function
This really matters for a happy stomach because being ill in the first place is a surefire cause of many an athlete’s race-ending tummy trouble. The best cure here is dodging illness from the start, which means bulletproofing your immune system.
As triathletes we’re particularly at risk of knocking out our immune systems due to physicial load. Exercise beyond two hours and you are all but guaranteed to temporarily suppress your immune system, leaving you open to any bug coming your way.
Fight this with plenty of water (good hydration really helps immune function) and as much fresh fruit and veg as you can pile in.
6 Speed and pace
Sometimes, stomach trouble in a race or session is all down to how hard you’ve pushed and is unavoidable. It’s the simple sign you’ve met the limit, ignored it and pushed through anyway.
If you’re on a mission to reach a new level in your own race day performance then tripping this threshold intentionally – either through race simulation in training, or when killing your A race for a particular goal – is all good. After all, triathlon isn’t easy, and hard work can sometimes result in hard consequences.
So if you’re in this category and are pounding it as hard as you can handle, being sick more a couple of times a year is no problem.
If you’re experiencing these issues while not maxing out your efforts however, or if the frequency is above this low limit then something is most definitely not right and you need to go back through points 1-5 above to iron out the issue.
Warren Pole is an ultramarathon runner and triathlete who co-founded natural sports nutrition company 33Shake and their products are used by four time Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington