The Athlete’s Gut: The Inside Science of Digestion, Nutrition, and Stomach Distress, by Patrick Wilson, PHD, RD. VeloPress, 2020. Reviewed by trail runner Laura Clark. Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian.
What is more important to an athlete on race day? A convenient parking space? A lucky bib number? A perfect forecast? Not even close. The answer is a short porta-potty line and a reliable source of toilet paper.
Usual race day stressors are dwarfed if either are in short supply, resulting in even more anxiety. For a seemingly healthy group, placing low on the scale of COVID-19 risk factors, this preoccupation with the lower reaches of the anatomy can be viewed as an equal-opportunity occupational hazard, open to newbies as well as champions like marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe.
Patrick Wilson is the Director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Old Dominion University and the author of the ground-breaking The Athlete’s Gut: The Inside Science of Digestion, Nutrition, and Stomach Distress. He is nothing if not thorough, with a 30-page appendix of footnotes meticulously documenting his findings and an additional supplement listing stomach woe like traveler’s diarrhea, and common medicines that are anything but gut-friendly. And while he does not scrimp on the scientific detail, he presents his findings in a manner in which even I, who managed to avoid high school biology in favor of two language classes, can understand. No small accomplishment.
And the fact that he does so with a sometimes 1st grade potty-humor style and a pointed effort to utilize every synonym for poop afforded by his online Thesaurus does not hurt his readability. For me, though, the curbside appeal of this volume, despite an obvious need to complete my chosen event, says a lot for my age. For on the cover is depicted an intestinal drainpipe layout, complete with colorful Pacman-like figures romping over, under, around and through. My fingers itch to turn the pages and play. And in a refreshing variant on the by now all-too-overused Born to Run sky blue and yellow book jacket, selected for consumer appeal, Wilson presents us with a striking variant: sky blue and sunset orange with a streak of crisp black and white for emphasis.
So what could go wrong? It turns out a lot. Wilson encourages us to embrace the emerging science of the gut as the second brain, with a network of 600 million neurons capable of a two-way interchange of messages from the gut to the brain and back again. Referring to a gut reaction or a speaking of a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach is apparently more than mere semantics. While much of this messaging remains to be explored, it is clear that what you eat can influence your mood and emotions.
So what take-away’s does The Athlete’s Gut have for you as a runner? Besides avoiding trigger foods (whatever they are for your particular body) before competition, the implication is that meditation, yoga, music, happy thoughts, visualization, an unchanging set of pre-race routines, should be vital components of your training routine. On the physical side of the equation, Wilson also claims that it is possible to train your gut to behave by discovering the Goldilocks zone of correct fluid intake and experimenting with fueling on the run.
My Dad used to say that if there are a lot of tools to achieve a particular result, for example, upwards of 30 models of corkscrews, chances are that none of them are doing a really good job. In this vein, Wilson also explores interventions you might be tempted to try, such as probiotics, supplements, sodium pills, ginger, dietary remedies…and their probability of success. Basically, it all boils down to Dr. George Sheenans’ axiom, “We are all an experiment of one.” So, go ahead and experiment—just not on race day!
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