It’s a tale as old as time, though possibly not one that’s very widely shared: you head out for a run with a perfectly normal-feeling gut, only to find yourself in dire need of a bathroom mid-run. It’s called called runner’s trots (or runner’s diarrhea), and it happens to an estimated 20 to 50 per cent of athletes and countless recreational long-distance runners.
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“The pathogenesis of exercise-induced diarrhea is not entirely clear, but thought to be multi-factorial,” says Dr. Sapna Makhija, co-director of GI Health Centre in Burlington, Ont. “Any type of mechanical stimulation of the intestinal mucous membrane — i.e. with exercise — can result in the secretion of peptides and lipids that alter intestinal secretion. Also, exercise-induced changes in the nervous system can influence colonic transit.”
Dehydration also plays a role because your body reduces the flow of blood to the gut and funnels it to larger muscle groups, says Andrea Miller, a consulting dietitian in Whitby, Ont. When there isn’t enough fluid in the gut, it’ll increase nausea and want to empty itself to feel better. Add to that the jostling that happens when you run, and pre- and post-race anxiety, and you have a perfect storm of poop triggers.
There are ways to curb the incidence of runner’s trots, however — and they start with what you eat, drink and do before heading out for a run.
Start off well-hydrated
Miller says hitting the streets, treadmill or trails well-hydrated is important because it’ll provide your body with enough fluid to service all its organs and muscles, and prevent the gut from sucking up all the water. But steer clear of juice, soda or energy drinks, as the high sugar content will draw the water into your gut and potentially lead to a poop emergency.
Time your meals accordingly
“Don’t eat five minutes before heading out,” Miller says. Not only could this cause cramping, but it’ll put something in your system that you may feel the need to evacuate mid-run. Full meals should be eaten two to four hours before a run, and snacks roughly one to two hours prior.
Think about what you’re eating
High-fat and high-fibre foods are digested slowly, so they’ll sit around in your gut longer. “You don’t want to be eating a plate of fries before your run,” Miller says.
Instead opt for a mix of lean protein and carbohydrates like yogurt with fruit, lean meats, vegetables and starchy foods like a baked potato.
“It’s not a great idea to run on an empty stomach because you only have so many glycogen stores in your body, and those will run out fairly quickly when you’re on a long run,” she says.
That can also have a domino effect: when you run out of glycogen stores, you risk cramping and that fear will trigger anxiety, which is also linked to runner’s trots.
To that end, reduce your running stress
“Performance anxiety, trying to improve your time or even heading out on a new route can trigger anxiety, and that will cause your gut to get funky,” Miller says.
She advises being mindful of your anxiety levels and get plenty of sleep — deprivation has been linked to increased risk of injury, high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat.
Morning poopers are well aware that coffee can stimulate your bowels, with or without the help of food, so skip your usual cuppa before hitting the road.
Choose your fruits wisely
While fruit is a great way to give your body some natural sugar to use as energy, it can also kickstart your bowels. Miller says to examine what works for you and what doesn’t.
“If an apple normally makes you feel full for a long time, avoid eating one right before a run,” she says. “Try putting it in a smoothie instead or eating some applesauce, which your body will digest more quickly.”