When it comes to running, I do best on an empty stomach. A full or half-full stomach makes me feel sluggish and uncomfortable (at best), or gives me cramps and gastrointestinal distress (at worst). This significantly complicates my running life, because after all food is fuel and fuel is important for endurance sports. Running first thing in the morning before breakfast is definitely optimal for me and one of the major reasons that I am a morning runner. Occasionally, though, I wake up feeling extra lazy and can't manage to do the morning running thing. I placate myself with the knowledge that after work and before dinner, I can sneak in a run. And, of course this is definitely true, plenty of people run in the evening. In these cases, I seem to operate well with at least 5 food-free hours before my run. Inevitably, though, I have a hard time cutting off my eating early enough to be comfortably digested. I like snacking, and the afternoon is a perfect time for it. I start getting mildly hungry and then I convince myself that it's fine to just have a small snack, a small snack won't hurt me, right? Inevitably though, I head out for the run and the food is sitting in my stomach like a rock and I regret it as I mosey through my now uncomfortable run.
It wasn't always like this. In high school, I ate lunch around 11:30am and sports practices started at 2:30pm. Even though the time between the two was relatively short, I did just fine and I don't remember indigestion problems at all. I would have to attribute that to two things; first, there was really no alternative option. I had a very strict lunch break that was not adjustable, and I also had a predefined sports practice. Further, I think my metabolism was different in my teen years. Either way, my body adjusted and I did just fine.
Ten years later, my eating/running habits are completely different. I have to be very careful about what I eat and when before runs. As previously mentioned, I try to finish meals about 5 hours before a scheduled meal. Sometimes, I do need a snack before I run (usually if the stomach is growling) or in the morning before a race. In these cases, I have a few go-to foods. Bananas sit pretty well for me, as do grapes. I can also eat a few saltines or other plain crackers. I've tried GU Chomps or GU gels with water, and those are pretty neutral on my stomach as well. That's about as adventurous as I get.
A few days ago, I was unable to run before work and decided instead to go running in the evening. Unfortunately, I hadn't packed a lunch that day because my advisor was buying my lab group pizza. I had requested a vegetarian pizza, but forgot to ask for one without cheese. I am vegetarian but not strictly vegan. However, I have been making a conscientious effort to avoid dairy and eggs. In the spirit of convenience, I decided to have some of the pizza. Sadly, this turned out to be a mistake. I hadn't had any significant amount of dairy in a while, and it definitely did not agree with me. There was no immediate distress, but rather my stomach was generally uncomfortable for the rest of the afternoon. I knew that I wouldn't be running for at least 5 hours after I finished eating, and I figured everything would settle down by then. At 5:30pm, my stomach felt better and I headed out for the run. I think the turbulent motion of running flared up the discomfort again and my stomach was pretty miserable. I pushed through the first 29 minutes of the run and then stopped to stretch out my abdomen. I started back up feeling slightly better, but not great. Finally, 35 minutes into my run I had a huge burp and experienced instant relief. Its just amazing what a burp can do :) I finished out the run much more comfortable. I think the lesson here, for me, is to stay away from cheese.
In other Running/Food related news, last night I hosted a Runner's Round Table episode on Vegan Running. I was joined by podcasters Megan, Gordon and Jake and blogger Margaret. We talked all about how veganism (and vegetarianism) relates to running, advantages and disadvantages and we each discuss why we made our own dietary/lifestyle choices. Definitely give it a listen and let me know what you think!