The GI [gastrointestinal] system plays the most significant role in the absorption of nutrients from the foods we eat. Poor GI health results in the body’s inability to get the macronutrients and micronutrients that it needs, sometimes to the point of considerable deficiencies. Perhaps even more obvious is the effect that GI health has on comfort. We have all experienced the discomforts associated with an unhealthy gut – be it pains associated with gas or worse, it ain’t a good tome. Another thing that a healthy gut enables you to do is apply and absorb training stress. It’s hard to even get out there and exercise at all with the discomfort that comes from an unhappy GI system. Gas pains or the need to evacuate at inconvenient times, especially when brought on by the physical activity itself, are all telltale signs of a struggling GI tract. Training fuels can be a primary trigger of GI distress, as large amounts of sugar can provide a breeding ground for bad bacteria. A healthy gut is much more likely to be able to handle the fuels required for the sport. These fuels can be bothersome to a vulnerable GI system. So there are more than enough reasons for an endurance athlete to take a moment, especially during the time of year when training fuels are used heavily, to run a gut check and focus on turning the ship around, if needed.
Poor GI health typically manifests as bloating, food sensitivities, excessive fatigue, joint pain, headaches, weight gain and an inability to handle training and racing fuels. While these symptoms may be present at any time, they will be further aggravated by any kind of stress, but especially the stress of intense workouts in preparation for an endurance race. Symptoms like bloating, joint pain and headaches are pretty obvious when they show up. However, food sensitivities, fatigue and weight gain are much more subtle signs of a problem. With so many demands constantly pulling us in different directions, it’s hard to attribute feelings of fatigue to an irritated gut.
Poor GI health can develop very easily. You don’t have to be sickly to experience an unhealthy gut. Improper nutrition, too much stress or a bacterial imbalance can all cause issues. Too much gluten, even for a nonsensitive person, can also be an issue for many athletes. These contributory factors promote chronic inflammation of the GI system, making it nearly impossible to absorb key nutrients and minerals from foods, triggering an autoimmune-like response and leading to frequent sickness.
If, in our training, consistency is king, poor GI health is in direct conflict with that goal. It takes a bite out of our long-term progress. It undermines our ability to adapt to increasing levels of stress, which is the key to getting faster. Add to this a diminished capacity to process important training and racing fuels, and we are faced with a double-edged sword slashing at us. Less fueling means less opportunity to apply training stress, as our bodies simply won’t have the necessary fuels to drive forward. Inconsistent training, coupled with reduced training loads, by volume and/or intensity, make any kind of improvement quickly slip away. Considering that the goal is just the opposite – to increase sustainable training load and frequency – a healthy GI system is required.
A diet of fish, lean meats, lean dairy, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes is extremely nutrient dense and provides the body with the essential minerals needed for sustained health. Most of these foods are easy on the body, though you may need to make alterations based on your specific sensitivities. The following are a few foods and supplements that you can incorporate if you’re struggling with tummy issues.
Lean dairy that contains active cultures, such as yogurt, can provide the body with good bacteria that promotes gut health. The active cultures L. bulgacaricus, S. thermophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis (aka Bifidus regularis) are commonly found in store-bought yogurts and all create an environment that greatly eases digestion. Many enthusiasts believe that these active cultures boost immunity to infection, reduce cholesterol and even serve as an anticarcinogen. Choose yogurts that are low in fat and have few added sugars, and look for a label that states that the active cultures are there, since not all yogurts have them.
Not only are fish oils important for heart health and their beneficial anti-inflammatory properties, but they can also help to reduce specific inflammation within the GI system. Also, fish oils are a valuable addition to enhance the delicate balance of gut bacteria.
When the training load gets heavy, glutamine can play a significant role in boosting the immune system, reducing GI inflammation, and balancing bacterial levels in the gut. A daily dose of five grams of glutamine is a perfect addition to your postworkout recovery drink. If you are specifically working on your GI health, you may want to dose as high as 10 – 15 grams daily for 8 to 12 weeks.
Orange-infused yogurt parfait with blueberries
4 small navel oranges
1 C fresh or frozen blueberries
2 C nonfat Greek yogurt
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons honey
Using a zester or rasplike tool, remove about 1/2 teaspoon of zest from the oranges while avoiding the bitter white pith; set aside. Cut off 1/4 inch from the top and bottom of the fruit. Using a sharp paring knife, cut the peel away from the orange, following the contours of the fruit. While holding an orange in one hand, cut between the membranes to remove the segments, dropping the segments into a medium bowl. Squeeze the juices from the membranes into the bowl. Add the blueberries and toss together.
In a medium bowl, combine the reserved orange zest, the yogurt, vanilla and 1/4 cup of the juice from the orange-and-blueberry mixture. Mix well.
In four six-ounce serving cups, place 1/4 cup of the orange-and-blueberry mixture in the bottoms. Top with 1/2 cup yogurt and another 1/4 cup layer of fruit. Drizzle 1/2 teaspoon honey on the top. Serve.
Poached Salmon Salad with Dill-Caper Sauce
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
4 salmon fillets (6 oz each)
1/2 C plain nonfat Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon mayonaise
1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons capers, drained
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill
1/4 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
1 (5-0unce) bag mixed field greens
In a large sauté pan set over high heat, bring one quart of water, the salt, two tablespoons of the lemon juice and the vinegar to a boil. Gently place the salmon fillets in a single layer in the pan. If the water level is too low, add enough to just cover the fish. Turn the heat down to low so that the liquid barely simmers. Poach the fish until it flakes easily with a fork, about 10 minutes. Transfer the fish to a plate and let cool.
In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, mayonnaise, mustard, capers, dill, lemon zest, salt and pepper.
Divide the greens among four serving plates. Top with the warm fish and spoon the sauce over the fish.
The previous excerpt and recipes are from author Jesse Kropelnicki’s cookbook, The Endurance Training Diet & Cookbook.