When working with athletes (professional, recreational or weekend warriors) I take a holistic approach towards sports performance. This means that rather than focussing solely on macros (protein, fats and fibre) I also look at other areas of their health that may be affecting performance. Unfortunately, gut disorders are very common in athletes, particularly those who are accumulating many kilometres of endurance running/cycling/swimming/rowing etc.. This can manifest in diarrhoea part way into a training session or race, increased intolerance to a range of foods, nausea, bloating, excess flatulence and discomfort – none of which are conducive to winning athletic performance!
Any form of exercise is a stress on the body and our body responds to the stress by releasing the stress hormone cortisol. Add in mental stress on race day and cortisol can elevate significantly. One of the mechanisms employed by cortisol to deal with the stress of exercising is to take energy away from the gut so it can deal with the stressor. That means that it slows the gut down and food is not digested as well as it should be. Also, endurance exercise encourages the formation of leaky gut. This is where the tight junctions between our gut cells become compromised and allow larger particles through into the blood stream than would not generally be permitted to enter. These larger molecules create an inflammatory effect that can reach any part of the body, such as joints, but can also double back on the gut wall and cause further discomfort. Leaky gut would also allow larger food proteins such as gluten and casein (dairy) to enter the blood stream and cause a reaction. Endurance athletes often find that they start reacting to more and more foods and that is due to the leaky gut allowing these food particles through into the blood stream and their immune system tries to neutralise them.
FOODS FOR ATHLETES
Another, factor that may affect an athlete’s gut is an “I can eat anything” attitude. Instead of eating, nutrition loaded, high fibre foods that feed the gut microbiome and provide the fuel required to maintain optimal gut health, they focus on a diet predominantly comprised of refined carbs such as bread, pasta and rice because they think they are ‘burning it off’. They are probably burning the calories consumed but they are failing to provide their body or gut with the fuel it needs. Gluten in particular has been found to increase gut permeability or leaky gut so a large amount of gluten (a big plate of pasta) prior to a big race probably isn’t the best idea for gut health. If the gut’s not doing well then the athlete will not be working at peak performance.
Many sports drinks, foods and gels are comprised of pure sugar. This can also encourage less beneficial bacteria and pathogenic yeasts to grow in the microbiome as well as irritating the gut lining on race day. Prior to switching to natural foods for fuel, I would finish a race and feel nauseous for a day or 2 afterwards – a combination of cortisol belly plus a few race gels for good measure. This meant that I couldn’t re-fuel as I should. When I switched to homemade energy balls (nuts, dates, seeds, fruit etc) I no longer experienced the nausea and found the fuelling to be perfectly adequate. Although these products provide an easy source of fuelling in an instance, on a long term basis they are not good for your gut or for insulin levels as you age.
When I work with an athlete who is experiencing gut issues, I often carry out food intolerance testing or remove the 2 big reactive proteins from the diet (gluten and dairy) and they often see big improvements quite quickly. I also check stomach acid and make sure their diet comprises of all of the elements that will keep improving sports performance but also provide fuel and nutrients for recovery. We look at fuelling during training and pre, post and during events. I always encourage athletes to experiment with diet during down time. Three days before a big race is never a good time to start adjusting diet and fuelling. Your body needs time to adjust and fine tune the perfect diet for you. When working with athletes (and non-athletes) personalisation of the diet is key.