In Ask the Trail Sisters

Stomach Cramps: When should you give in and turn around and when should you push through?

Everybody is different. I find the best bet is to figure out why you are getting stomach cramps. Mine are usually a hydration issue (lack of). So when you get one, try to review the 24 hours leading up to that point to see why this is your pain now and what you can do to fix it for the future. Pushing through is up to you and what is causing the situation. It might just meaning slowing down for a bit to work out and solve the issue…so you don’t have to completely stop and you don’t have to battle to push through.

Breathe. Breathing through the stomach cramps is key whether you keep running or stop. You want to help those muscles relax so they don’t seize up and persist into future runs. I typically keep running unless they make me double over/break form to the point that I can’t run. Basically I run until I can’t run because I know it’s not an injury, just discomfort.

Stomach cramps are my jam, being a celiac. I pretty much always run or walk through them because (knock on wood), I’ve never been plagued by severe vomiting issues. 

I always try to breathe through them, and I’ve found that it’s typically related to the way I’ve fueled and hydrated leading up to my run or race. If I haven’t had enough water prior to a run, I can pretty much guarantee that I’m going to end up with a side stitch or a cramp. 

Oooh, this just came up at my digestion talk a couple of nights ago.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of slowing down a bit to allow a little more circulation to the digestive tract.   Less circulation = more cramping to the muscles that comprise the digestive tract. Sprinting can cause more circulation to shunt to your extremities, leaving less for the internal organs.  With conditioning, your body will adjust to this shift. Big deep breaths to stretch the diaphragm will generally help as well.  Self-massage right wear you are feeling the pain can also get you back on track.  If none of these things help, it might be time for a break.  Additionally, if the cramping is accompanied by diarrhea, pay close attention.  Is your system cramping up every time you try to take in calories?  If so, it’s time to call it, slow all the way down, and get to someplace you can rest your body. 

Stomach cramps are hard to deal with. For me, it really depends on the cause of the cramp regarding if I decide to push through or throw in the towel. Everyone has a different pain tolerance and ability to work through cramping. Also, my decision may be based on if I am on a training run or in a race. We runners are stubborn and often have a higher (than normal) tolerance for pain, however it’s important we listen to our bodies as well! I might play with nutrition as well to see if that helps alleviate the cramping. Good luck out there!

I think with everything in ultras, there can be varied reasons for stomach cramps and your decision to stop or push through also depends on many different things.  That being said, I think before you quit you should try to take in something that will settle your stomach and see if you can’t turn things around.  For me, ginger and Mountain Dew seem to work, which is funny because outside of ultras Mountain Dew makes me incredibly sick.  Also, back of the pace a bit, as sometimes it is an issue of pushing to hard and drawing all of the blood away from digestion.  Give those two things some time to work, and then reassess.  If you still have stomach cramps, then your decision to push on has to be based on what your motivation is for that run/race and if you can still take in enough calories to get yourself through the end of the race.  That being said, I listened to a Ginger Runner episode where an elite had a terrible race with stomach issues and got her calories entirely from Coke for the second half of the race.  Again, the decision to do this or to drop is very personal, but just pointing out that usually if your goal is to finish you can find a way to make it across the finish line.  If the point of the race was to perform well or have fun, then maybe it makes sense to drop and plan for another race down the road.

Stomach cramps are the worst. Nutrition and hydration are often the culprits. It all depends. If I am in a longer race they are a given; usually if I am patient and do some troubleshooting that includes adjusting water and food intake and slowing down, I can get back on track. If I get too far behind and the cramps are accompanied by vomiting and/or headaches and my troubleshooting is unsuccessful, that is when I consider pulling the plug. Mostly, take a deep breath, slow down, sip, nibble, and you can get through them. 

My first thought reading this is are you talking about a race or a run?  My answers would change just a little bit. If it were a race, I’d ask: how would you handle this on your practice runs? If this were a run, I’d say: push through it.  For me, stomach cramps are usually an issue with digestion. Maybe I ate something strange or too much of something earlier.  I know that if I keep going, I’ll be just fine.  Maybe I’ll have to walk/hike a bit to have it pass, but it almost always does.  This is me though, if in your experience tummy cramps could lead to something pretty bad, make sure you stop, work on some slow breathing techniques and relax for a bit before you continue.  

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  • Julia
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    It depends on what is causing the cramp. I have had the stitch cramps that seem to go away with some deep breathing and massaging while I still am running, but I have also had cramps due to IBS. Having IBS as a runner I have found can be really challenging and discouraging. Running through these cramps knowing they will most likely not go away during the course of my run has been a hard to decision to make, but an important decision to make. The discomfort has tried to steal the joy of running from me, but making the daily choice to just get out there and run regardless of not feeling perfect all the time has been a life-giving decision. I always want to feel my best while I am running and when I do it really is the best feeling, but unfortunately that is not reality all the time.

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