The role of gut health in exercise

You go to gym for one reason only: to be better. Better physique, better mentality, better overall health. One thing to agree on is that, if you’re working your body this hard, you want to ensure you’re getting the most out of it.

Many people remain unaware that there’s something which is far more important to your success than the time you spend training, your form, and even tracking your macros…

There’s a highly underestimated organ that needs some more attention when it comes to your workout routine and it holds some serious weight for your workout goals.

Can you guess what this organ is?

It may seem odd - but, the organ being referred to is actually the gut!


What does the gut have to do with exercise?

The gut - or digestive tract - is a very complex system, but in short, is the organ responsible for digesting, absorbing, processing and eliminating the foods and supplements you consume.

So, when it comes to exercise, the gut actually determines whether the nutrition in the food you eat is available to your body to:

  • Use as energy during a workout
  • Build and repair the muscles you work on
  • Adapt and build a tolerance to exercise-induced stress
  • Allow you to continue taking part in a workout routine


If there are irregularities in the gut that disrupt any of the stages of digestion, these outcomes can significantly hinder progress for your workout routine and physique.

Unfortunately, these irregularities are more common than you think.


Athletes have a greater chance of poorer gut health

Interestingly enough, the more you train, the more attention should be paid to your gut.

Studies performed on elite athletes and Olympians show how severely a training routine can affect the digestive system1,2. Prolonged and intense exercise, often accompanied by strict nutrient intake, can have adverse effects on the gut lining and may produce symptoms including nausea, abdominal cramping, bloating and diarrhea, amongst others3.

While the effects are most commonly seen in long-distance runners, anyone doing an intensive training routine is more susceptible to digestive dysfunction. Generally, it is believed that around 30-50% of athletes experience negative gastrointestinal effects4 while other studies have found that up to 85% of athletes experience at least one recurring symptom relating to digestive upset due to training5!

While the reasons are multidimensional, research shows these dysfunctions are largely due to physical changes in the gut brought about by exercise. These physical changes involve damage to the lining of the intestines as a result of reduced blood flow to the gut.

When you exercise, the gut doesn’t need to work at full capacity, your muscles do! And so, a large supply of the blood is shunted away from the gut6 and to the areas it’s needed most: the parts of the body being stressed and strained by your workout. With less blood comes less oxygen and nutrients being delivered to the gut when exercise routines are longer and more intense, therefore leading to a high risk of damage to the sensitive tissues of the gut.

There are, however, ways to reduce these effects and measures to put in place to ensure that the exercise you’re doing is leaving you with the results you hope to achieve.


Two easy ways to keep exercise-induced gut troubles at bay

While it is true that exercise has an overall positive effect on many elements of digestive health7, just two simple strategies may provide a great deal of benefit to the gut and reduce those negative ones.


#1. Make glutamine part of your workout

The amino acid L-glutamine has shown to provide great overall benefit to exercise. Not only does it improve the recovery time following an intense training routine - but, it’s also great for the gut! L-glutamine aids in the regeneration of the lining of the gut wall, which may be delayed following the reduction of oxygenated blood delivery during exercise.

Research suggests that, even when taken right before exercise, glutamine supplementation can prevent exercise-induced gut imbalances8. Additionally, supplementing with glutamine provides further benefits for those who regularly partake in exercise, including reduced inflammation and lower infection risks9.


#2. Hydrate!

It may seem counterintuitive to add fluid when your bowels are already loose, but water is essential to maintain fluid balance across your entire system. Fluid loss and dehydration can persist several hours after physical activity has been completed10, and can have a significant impact on the return of blood flow to the digestive tract.

During maximum levels of strenuous activity, as much a 6-10% of body weight can be lost as sweat, and physical performance can be hampered at levels as low as 2%11. Fluid intake is important to replenish the body’s water and mineral balance, as well as regulate temperature. It’s far more complex than simply adding water, thus, the most effective drink should contain electrolytes and a mixture of sugars.

Particularly on intense training days, choose a low carb hydration drink that combines both fructose and glucose in low amounts4, as too much sugar can cause other negative effects; and keep hydrating.

Using these two hacks, you can significantly attenuate digestive symptoms and improve gut health status to complement your overall training routine.

It’s important to remember that the physical implications of exercise are not limited to building muscle and losing body fat. Your gut and internal organs are important for keeping you healthy and, if looked after correctly, can only enhance your workout routine and physical goals!

Happy training!



  1. Strid, H., Simrén, M., Störsrud, S., Stotzer, P.-O., & Sadik, R. (2011). Effect of heavy exercise on gastrointestinal transit in endurance athletes. Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology, 46(6), 673–677. doi:10.3109/00365521.2011.558110
  2. van Wijck K., et al. Exercise-induced splanchnic hypoperfusion results in gut dysfunction in healthy men. PLoS One. 2011; 6(7):e22366.
  3. de Oliveira EP, Burini RC. The impact of physical exercise on the gastrointestinal tract. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2009 Sep; 12(5):533-8.
  4. De Oliveira, E. P., Burini, R. C., & Jeukendrup, A. (2014). Gastrointestinal Complaints During Exercise: Prevalence, Etiology, and Nutritional Recommendations. Sports Medicine, 44(S1), 79–85. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0153-2.
  5. Pugh, J. N., Fearn, R., Morton, J. P., & Close, G. L. (2017). Gastrointestinal symptoms in elite athletes: time to recognise the problem? British Journal of Sports Medicine, 52(8), 487–488. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2017-098376
  6. Zuhl M., et al. Exercise regulation of intestinal tight junction proteins. Br J Sports Med. 2014 Jun; 48(12):980-6.
  7. Rankin, A., O’Donavon, C., Madigan, S. M., O’Sullivan, O., & Cotter, P. D. (2017). “Microbes in sport” – The potential role of the gut microbiota in athlete health and performance. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 51(9), 698–699. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2016-097227.
  8. Zuhl, M., Dokladny, K., Mermier, C., Schneider, S., Salgado, R., & Moseley, P. (2014). The effects of acute oral glutamine supplementation on exercise-induced gastrointestinal permeability and heat shock protein expression in peripheral blood mononuclear cells. Cell Stress and Chaperones, 20(1), 85–93. doi:10.1007/s12192-014-0528-1
  9. Conejero R et al (2002) Effect of a glutamine-enriched enteral diet on intestinal permeability and infectious morbidity at 28 days in critically ill patients with systemic inflammatory response syndrome: a randomized, single-blind, prospective, multicenter study. Nutrition 18:716–721.
  10. Popkin, B. M., D’Anci, K. E., & Rosenberg, I. H. (2010). Water, hydration, and health. Nutrition Reviews, 68(8), 439–458. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2010.00304.x
  11. Murray B. Hydration and physical performance. J Am Coll Nutr. 2007 Oct; 26(5 Suppl):542S-548S.

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