Stomach Issues and the Bike: Best Tips

You write what you know, right? Well, I know biking. But, between us, my first published piece wasn’t about the joys of riding, or the best new bikes for the year. Actually, I wrote about poop. But in a bike-related way. Or at least, a triathlete-related way.
I wrote this piece, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and the Triathlete,
and crazy enough, that’s the first piece I had printed in a cycling-related magazine.

So clearly, Saddle, Sore isn’t the first time I’ve talked openly about awkward issues. The past couple weeks, I’ve had some of my old issues crop back up. And I got to thinking… I talk about pads and tampons and what to do when your lady parts are numb on the bike, so why shouldn’t I talk about another awkward subject? My stomach isn’t working. There’s not one specific problem, but a whole host of charming issues cropping up. I won’t get too far into exactly what I’ve been feeling like, but I’ll say that constant, incredibly painful cramping was the biggest of the problems, and the others (of which there were many) paled in comparison.

Thankfully, I’m older and wiser now, and I want to share some of the tips I’ve come up with to deal with my problems this time around.

1. Hydrate! This was huge, especially since we were on the go and I was training a ton. When I travel, I’m terrible at drinking enough, just because jumping around a bunch during the day isn’t conducive to slamming water, though that’s arguably when you need it the most. So with my stomach just out of control hurting, I realized at least a bit of the problem was that I was just slightly dehydrated and had been for a while. I started drinking a lot more water, along with lots of soothing tea with licorice and coconut water to mix it up.

2. Stick to normal (or semi-modified) workout routine, don’t just sit around. I personally need movement to alleviate cramps and keep things generally moving—plus, sitting around and not training means I’m truly sick, not feeling crappy, and that’s bad for my head. It’s a vicious cycle: you feel sick, you stop training, you convince yourself that you’re sicker than you really are. So if I can get up and do a normal ride or run… things can’t be that bad!

3. Cut out major allergens. You know the ones: nuts, gluten, dairy. This isn’t because I’m convinced I’m allergic to anything in particular, but because a) placebo effect of just ‘doing something’ and b) it meant more fruits and veggies and a cleaner diet overall. I didn’t totally cut out alcohol but definitely cut way, way back (and went away from wine for a couple days to decrease my sugar consumption). I definitely felt better cutting out gluten and dairy, but that’s more because I wasn’t eating a giant cookie mid-afternoon and a bunch of chocolate at night. I fell into some bad habits in the past few weeks…

4. Up your fiber intake. I don’t mean taking fiber pills (though I am testing out psyllium husk capsules). I more mean make sure you’re still keeping tons of fruits and veggies in your diet. I did find that raw veggies in massive quantities, i.e a huge salad, were making things a lot worse, so I started sticking to things like steamed spinach, and that seemed to help quite a bit. And feeling crappy is no excuse to miss out on important vitamins and minerals! That’s just going to come back to haunt you.

5. Try probiotics and apple cider vinegar. Everyone has a few kooky things they try. For me, it was apple cider vinegar with water twice a day to encourage good digestion and probiotics, in the hopes that I could get the bacteria in my gut to start behaving. This along with #3 is probably the most placebo effect-inducing one, but I definitely felt a difference (see #9 for more on the placebo end of things). I like to think that it actually is working—lots of incredibly smart people I know swear by both of those things. I’m definitely a believer now.

6. Eat (but the right stuff in the right amounts). Even when your stomach feels somewhat off, you do need to keep things moving, especially if you’re still training and trying to live normally. I had a rough time with this at times, though admittedly, the harder part was as I started feeling better and better, I was hungrier and hungrier but still trying to keep portions in serious control and to keep all of those delicious, delicious allergens out of my diet. I think that’s what made me feel better, so it makes sense to stay super clean for a while, but man, junk food is awesome!

7. Sleep. We were super jet lagged from our Vancouver-Toronto flight last week and had a hard time getting back on schedule, especially since two days later, we were driving 10 hours to NJ, then staying up later for a wedding. And then up late to go into NYC. And then up early to go back to the airport… And so on. So the days that I could sleep in, I did. And I hate sleeping in. But I knew I couldn’t get my stomach back on track if my body was totally run down.

8. Avoid painkillers. The first 7 days my stomach hurt, I was popping ibuprofen constantly, because honestly, we were busy and I didn’t want to be a drag. And it temporarily helped, for sure. But when I stopped… Yikes. The problem is painkillers were masking what my body was trying to tell me (that something was seriously out of whack) and while I was masking it, it was actually getting worse and worse. Not awesome. I think if I had started working to fix it sooner, it wouldn’t have gotten as bad.

9. Keep stress levels as low as possible. This one was hard because it’s my nature to freak out and want to be better NOW. But I’m trying to be patient and optimistic and notice when that it’s gradually feeling better and better. I think doing all of the things listed above has made that easier because now I feel like I’m tackling the issue rather than just hoping it goes away. So whether that stuff really works or not, I think the placebo effect that it has on my psyche is the most important bit.

I hope that helps at least one of you out there. Stomach issues suck, and they make riding so much less fun. If you’ve dealt with similar issues, let me know in the comments if you have any other ways you get back to riding happy!

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