The Most (and Least) Gut-Friendly Foods to Fuel Your Workout

small group of runners in urban invironment, evening training
If you're training for a spring or summer race, you may have to train your gut, too. (Getty Images)
Spring training is in full swing – and not just for baseball players. Recreational runners, cyclists and hikers are also preparing for races and active vacations – and some are feeling it in their guts.
Yes, while exercise is critically important for heart, bone and muscular health, one of its annoying unintended consequences can be digestive distress. After all, the gastrointestinal tract moves when your body moves, and the up-and-down motion of running or brisk walking can send you sprinting toward the port-a-potty during training or races. If your gut doesn't feel good, you won't feel good – and your athletic performance will likely suffer as a result.
Fortunately, while some gut issues during exercise can be due to factors you can't control like the weather, other factors you can control. For example, eating too much food the night before or morning of exercise, eating too close to the time of exercise, eating foods that can have a laxative effect and drinking too much or too little water can all contribute to GI distress in motion, according to a 2016 survey of 910 athletes in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism.
Particular foods can be to blame, too. According to the survey, the most bothersome foods are high in FODMAPs, an acronym that stands for types of poorly-absorbed, quickly-fermented carbohydrates. In fact, when athletes eliminated at least one high-FODMAP food category, they reduced their symptoms by 82 percent. Here are some examples of high-FODMAP foods that can be some of the biggest GI offenders:
  • Lactose: Milk, ice cream, ricotta and cottage cheese, yogurt and nonfat milk powder.
  • Galactooligosaccharides: Black, kidney, navy and pinto beans, pistachios and cashews.
  • Fructose: Apples, figs, mangoes, watermelon, honey and agave.
  • Fructans: Dried fruit, garlic, onion, wheat, barley, rye and inulin.
  • Polyols: Apples, apricots, peaches, nectarines, pears, cauliflower, mushrooms and sugar alcohols.
Since all of those potentially-distressing foods contain particular types of carbs, you may think that the solution is just to take all carbs out of your diet. Not so fast! Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for sprint-type exercise and 50 percent of the fuel source for endurance exercise. So rather than eliminate, discriminate in your carbohydrate choices by trying some of these low-FODMAP alternatives:
  • Low-lactose: Aged cheeses, lactose-free milk, coconut milk, pea milk, almond milk, rice milk and lactose-free yogurt.
  • Low-galactooligosaccharides: Arugula, beets, broccoli, carrots, green beans, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, almonds, chickpeas and edamame.
  • Low-fructose: Bananas, cantaloupes, grapes, oranges, papaya, pineapple, clementines and berries.
  • Low-fructans: Gluten-free bread, oats, rice, quinoa, sourdough bread, soba noodles and corn tortillas.
  • Low-polyols: Maple syrup, sugar and stevia.
Here are some meals and snacks you can make with these low-FODMAP ingredients that can help fuel your workout – without triggering your gut:
  • Energy bites made with peanut or almond butter, oats, crispy rice cereal, maple syrup and dried cranberries.
  • Oat bites made with oats, pumpkin, pea milk, spices and maple syrup.
  • Overnight oats made with Greek yogurt, peanut milk and bananas.
  • Mini potatoes made with olive oil and soy sauce rolled in crushed rice cereal and sesame seeds.
  • A trail mix made from corn cereal, freeze-dried strawberries and roasted chickpeas.
  • Gluten-free wraps with peanut butter, rice syrup and banana or almond butter, strawberries and strawberry preserves.
If you don't want to make your own gut-friendly foods, make sure you scrutinize sports nutrition products before you buy them. Many lower-carb bars have inulin, and some may be sweetened with agave. Some of the gels, chomps and chews contain honey. Trail mixes may contain raisins, so consider making them yourself so you can pick the grain, nut and dried fruit that work well for you. If you use protein powders, look to see what is used as the sweetener; many products contain some type of sugar alcohol such as sorbitol, mannitol, isomalt or maltitol. Consider maple candies, dried cranberries or even sugar cubes as gut-friendly options during races. Just don't overdo it – one to two candies, three to four sugar cubes or 2 tablespoons of dried cranberries along with water should suffice over the course of an hour.
Tummy still not feeling settled? Be a digestive detective. Keep track of your symptoms, what you ate before exercise and how well-hydrated you were. Take a good look at your plate, too, to see if what you eat for your meals may be part of the problem. Riced cauliflower or cauliflower pizza may be trendy, but may be quite unfriendly to your gut. Carbo-loading with pasta may be a no-no, so think about eating a potato to provide enough carbohydrates to fuel your exercise instead.
Finally, it may be worthwhile to seek out the advice of a sports dietitian. He or she can help you develop a fueling plan that excludes food triggers and includes foods that provide the energy you need. A sports dietitian can also help you figure out when and how much to eat to optimize performance.