Why should you train the gut?
Gastrointestinal (GI) problems are very common among endurance athletes. It is likely that these problems are caused by the fact that blood flow to the intestine is reduced during intense and prolonged exercise and dehydration seems to exacerbate this effect. Thankfully, there has been a lot of studies showing that the GI system is highly adaptable. This suggests that training the gut can do several helpful things. It can help reduce bloating and fullness during exercise. It can improve gastric emptying and the capacity to absorb carbohydrates. Some studies even suggest it can improve the delivery of carbohydrates. All of these things combined might realistically have a major impact on race day performance.
How to train the gut?
There are several strategies to train the gut. The most important for racing is to regularly train with high carbohydrate intake. This teaches the body to handle a lot of carbs while on the bike. A related simple strategy that has also been shown to help is to increase carbohydrate intake in the diet. This is usually most effective in the lead up to a race. Other strategies might include riding with large volumes of fluid to train the stomach to handle a lot of stuff inside. And training immediately after a meal to get used to riding with a very full stomach.
Training race nutrition
Training race nutrition could be considered one of the “training the gut” strategies. In essence, this type of training should simulate the nutritional strategy of a race day as closely as possible. For example, a marathon runner has to practice drinking from a cup whilst running at race pace. For cyclists, this means being able to drink from a bidon and consuming gels or solid food while riding at race pace. Training race nutrition can also include ingesting salt tablets, testing the limits of caffeine intake and other practices that are part of an athlete’s race-day nutrition plan.
A relatively new strategy that is closely related to training race nutrition is training hypohydrated or, in other words, training in a suboptimal state of hydration. This strategy has recently been investigated in a scientific setting and it is showing promising results. One study compared runners who performed a 45-min steady state run followed by a 5-km performance task either in a normal hydration state or hypohydrated. And they found that training without fluids resulted in smaller reductions in performance. On average, the runners were 5.8 % slower when training with normal hydration and only 1.2 % slower when they trained in a dehydrated state. This study suggests that being familiar with a hypohydrated state in training may improve performance in races where hypohydration occurs quite often. But it needs to be said that we need more studies before this type of training can be fully recommended for every competitive cyclist.
As you can see, periodized nutrition has a lot of faces and if you want to get the most out of your training, you need to periodise your diet throughout the season and each training week. And if you want to perform not just in training but in races, then you have to take your time to train the gut too. Gradually implement these strategies into your training and you will see a big difference in your races!