Updated: Oct 8, 2020
Have you ever been halfway through a workout and suddenly the feeling hits you – nausea!! Argh! What is this happening? You were moving and a grooving, then without warning you break out in a sweat, feel that sensation in the back of your throat and your stomach starts to churn. If you are lucky you might just feel the wave of nausea hit without it going any further, but if you are less fortunate you might even throw up. Workout over.
The sad reality is exercise induced nausea can affect anyone. From the fitness new comer to the well-seasoned gym rat and even the advanced athlete, yes nausea can happen anytime and anywhere given the right set of circumstances. The good news is once you know what is causing it, you can prevent it from happening again, so let’s take a look at a few of the most common culprits.
Food. What you put in your body before, during (when applicable) and after matters. Eating a big meal or heavy snack too close to your workout can upset the GI tract and create that woozy stomach feeling, unfortunately so can not eating enough oreating the wrong things before you break into your sweat session. Where should you start? With a balanced ratio of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats, typically this equates to a 3:1 ratio of carbs/protein.
Remember, carbohydrates are the body’s primary fuel source, which means when we don’t have enough of them our body is challenged to perform, especially during high intensity exercise. Carbohydrates also impact our blood sugar levels, which means without the right fuel you might start to feel foggy, shaky and yep, even nauseas. If you notice you start dragging or feeling queasy halfway through your workout, it may be time to take a closer look at your pre workout nutrition and ensure it is working for you and not against you! For some great tips on pre workout nutrition, including the what, when and how much, check out our article on Pre Workout Nutrition.
Hydration. When you don’t get enough fluids throughout the day, you can put your body at risk of dehydration. Even folks who are diligent about drinking lots of water can be easily impacted by factors such as fluctuating temperatures, sweat lost through stress, illness and exercise, suddenly finding themselves at an increased risk of dehydration. Studies show by the time we actually feel thirsty (a.k.a. the brain signals, “drink something!!”), we are often already experiencing some level of dehydration.
How does that lead to nausea? When you are dehydrated your body has to work harder to perform basic functions, such as supporting healthy GI function and keeping the tummy happy. During exercise your body is pushing blood to those large muscles so they can perform, if you are dehydrated this that much harder for the body to do, effectively and efficiently, which can lead to an upset stomach and those feelings of nausea. Just like your body needs the right nutrition to perform, it also needs adequate hydration. For some helpful tips on how you can ensure healthy hydration check out our article, All About Hydration.
Medication. We live in a busy world where we often push through. We push through a busy day, push through sleep deprivation, push through hunger, and unfortunately we often push through aches and pains. Sadly for some of us this can mean relying to heavily on over the counter anti-inflammatories, which can lead to upset stomach and nausea.
Listen, OTC anti-inflammatories can be great in a pinch for the occasional soreness, headache, etc., however if you find you are having to rely on them regularly or to “power through” your workouts you may be taking too much and doing a number on your gut, especially if you are taking more than the recommended dosage.
First and foremost, listen to your body, what is it telling you?Maybe it is time to dial back the intensity of your exercise routine, or evaluate if you are overtraining a particular muscle group, or it might be time to diversify your workout (cross training!), or maybe just maybe, it is just time to take a rest day! If after a short break and engaging in lower impact activities the aches and pains don’t subside, it may be time to dig deeper and visit your doctor or local physical therapist to help assess the root cause of the problem.
Ultimately fitness should be empowering and you should not have to mask pain day in and day out in order to “make it happen.” For some ahhh-some stretching resources and releasing muscle tension tips be sure to check out our articles Tips for Muscle Soreness, and, Myofascial Release Techniques.
Exercise Intensity, Fitness Level and Emotions: Ever heard of (or witnessed) a runner cross the finish and then vomit in the closest garbage can? It happens. It might be because they tied one on the night before, or it might be a reaction to the exercise intensity, the challenge to their current fitness level or directly connected to their emotions.
Exercise Intensity and Fitness Level. The harder you work, the more you demand of your body and its systems. And if any of your foundational components are lacking, you could find yourself at an increased risk for nausea. This is not exclusive to the high intensity exerciser. It can happen during various levels of intensity and for all fitness levels. Why? It could be due to a lack of underlying conditioning, pushing too hard too soon ortoo fast. How do you know if your workouts are too intense for your ability? One tool I share with my adult clients when they are just starting a fitness program is their target active heart rate zone. Your target heart rate is based on your age and your active heart rate zone provides the range your heart might beat per minute during times of exercise (ranging from low to moderate to vigorous intensities). In general, the healthier you are the higher you can work within that active range.
Emotions: So you looked at your active heart rate, you are well within that healthy zone and you have the underlying conditioning, so now what? Maybe it is anxiety or nerves. The mind and body connection is huge! The stress that can accompany competition, engaging in a new fitness or even just being in a new environment can really do a number on your mind and body. When we experience mental stress, the body absorbs it and it can manifest in many different ways, most commonly seen in sweaty palms, jitters, and an upset stomach. Have you ever walked into an interview or exam? How about being in a room of people you didn’t know? What did it feel like the first time you tried something new? Think about the thoughts and feelings that typically surface during stressful moments (anxious, exhilarated, nervous, excited or fearful?) and how your body might respond. When you are able to see how your thoughts and feelings might impact your physical wellness you are better able to proactively reduce those negative impacts by engaging in healthy coping activities. For some tips on how you can reduce stress and it’s negative impacts check out our articles, 4 Stress Less Tips, and, 15 Holiday Stress Busters (because they are great any time of year!)
Bottom line – exercise induced nausea can happen, but it doesn’t have to! When you understand what your body needs to perform at its best – whether you are a beginner or a fitness novice – you can be better prepared for a positive fitness experience. The occasional stomach upset can happen, however should you experience nausea or other nasty symptoms that seem to persist, visit your doctor to rule out any underlying health conditions and ensure a safe and effective fitness experience.