I came to competitive running at 40, and 13 years later, while I’m nationally ranked and often an age-group winner, I don’t have everything about the sport figured out. Along with a 2:46:10 marathon at age 47 (just ten seconds shy of qualifying for the Olympic Trials), and an age-group win at the 2015 Boston Marathon, I have gastrointestinal (GI) issues.
My GI challenges have, too often, led to one or more Porta Potty stops during races, and while my own problems usually begin at 10 miles and beyond, GI distress hits all types of endurance athletes, and at different distances. The issue has attracted a lot of scientific research, and one survey even says that younger runners might suffer more than older ones.
For me, however, all that science is of little consolation—because it’s overwhelmingly inconclusive. I may sometimes like to think of myself as some sort of “Super Master” masters athlete, but the GI problems are humbling and frustrating.
I largely know what foods work and don’t work for me when I’m training. I know what works when I’m not in a pair of running shoes. But sometimes when I run very long and often when I race, my persistent GI woes create emotional havoc. They’ve crushed goals that I had worked long and hard to achieve.
I’m also a running coach, and my clients and running friends barrage me with fueling questions: “What should I use?” “How much?” “How often?” “Before, during, or after?”
I now tell every client, training partner or friend with GI issues what I finally told myself: Explore and experiment with your nutrition, similar to the way you might research injury prevention, fatigue, or unfamiliar workouts. I tell folks that it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been running. Keep probing. Through experimentation, you’ll find that some food and drink products will likely work for you, and some won’t, and virtually every sports nutritionist would agree.
The long list of variables that can contribute to GI distress include: gender, hormonal issues, food intolerances, stress levels, dehydration, metabolism issues, overtraining, blood flow rates, body weight, allergies, duration of exercise, and taste. Yes, your perfect nutritional solution might be undermined by the realization that, two-thirds of the way through your race, you simply cannot swallow any more of what you previously believed to be the magic bullet.
My racing fuel once consisted of energy gels and water. But almost like clockwork, around mile 10 in a race my gut came to scream “Uncle!” I tried to eat fewer gels, and also tried to eat more. I played with my wake-up times: I discovered that 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. races caused me fewer GI problems than 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. events. I ultimately figured out that getting my butt out of bed very early every day for about two weeks prior to an early competition helped train my body to use the bathroom earlier. I also found the time needed to take in a light breakfast and some coffee (I’m unwilling to sacrifice my pre-race coffee—with cream).
But there’s been plenty more experimentation. I’ve tried Metamucil, and reducing lactose, fiber, and vitamins and/or supplements for a few days prior to a race. I’ve eaten very simple, easily digestible foods on both the day and night before my races.
Finally, after a decade of testing, I received some guidance from other athletes. Personally, I think that a thoughtful and successful fellow-athlete can be a great resource, and so I took a different direction. In 2015 I tried a relatively obscure (to me, anyway) sports nutrition product called Generation UCAN. Soon after trying it, I was encouraged by the energy I enjoyed, and the lack of need to take in any other fuel for the first 90 minutes of my runs and marathons.
UCAN’s key ingredient—called SuperStarch—is, technically speaking, a low-glycemic, non-GMO cornstarch. SuperStarch was originally developed (about seven years ago) to help stabilize blood sugar levels in kids suffering from life-threatening hypoglycemia. But because SuperStarch helps maintain even levels of blood sugar—thus preventing the huge energy spikes and drops that some endurance athletes experience with sugary or caffeinated gels—runners took notice. I’m in honorable company: Four-time American Olympic runner Meb Keflezighi was an early adopter of the product.
Finally, I have some of my sports nutrition wired. Along with that light breakfast, I consume a serving of UCAN (I like Tropical Orange; it tastes like a Creamsicle!) around 30 minutes before a race, or long run. I now know that the less sugary or fibrous fuel I take in, the better.
Consuming UCAN during the run is next on my sports nutrition to-do list. But rather than drink a 10-ounce serving, I’ll make it more like a paste that I can store in a portable container. If that approach doesn’t work (and it might not), I can always turn back to my gel-and-water ways. Right now, deep into my long runs and races, one or two gels every 45 minutes seems to work—sometimes.
As I said, keep probing.
If I sound like something of a poster child for UCAN, that’s because I am. I’m officially a company ambassador. But when you find something that really works for you, whatever it is, you’ll want to wave a banner, too.
I’m always interested to know more about endurance athletes’ successes with sports nutrition, as well as their frustrations. Please feel free to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jenny Hitchings lives in Sacramento. She’s a running coach, product ambassador for Generation UCAN, and member of the Sacramento Running Association’s Elite Racing Team.