I have an embarrassing confession to make. Actually I have several and they all relate to having to make pit stops during a run because nature called.
Ashamedly, I am a runner that every so often has to awkwardly shuffle over to a road side portaloo and hold my breath to 'drop the kids off' or do 'number two' before finishing the race.
If like me, you've experienced the stabbing pain of stomach cramps or the sudden urge to evacuate your bowels mid-run, you know that sometimes nature won't wait for you to reach a toilet and you also appreciate how much better you feel post-poop.
Too much information
Thankfully I have very understanding running partners, who, despite being initially mortified tend to laugh it off after being sworn to secrecy. But experiences like these not only leave me red-faced, they make me anxious about whether the same thing will happen on my next run.
You're probably asking 'Why is she telling me this?' – it's because recently I've found out that needing to poo while running isn't uncommon for runners. While I thought I was some weirdo with an over excited gut, a review in The International SportMed Journal about gastrointestinal (GI) problems in runners reported that between 30-83 per cent of runners are affected by GI disturbances. And a separate study of long-distance triathletes competing in extreme conditions found that 93 per cent of them had at least one symptom of GI distress.
I also feel better knowing that it happens to professionals, too – even English long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe. In 2005, on her way to winning the London Marathon, she was forced to stop on the side of the road in front of thousands of fans.
To get to the, err, bottom of what causes runners' diarrhoea and how you can avoid running to the bathroom during a race I spoke with sports dietitian Katherine Shone. A keen sportswoman and triathlete, Shone is really interested in the role of nutrition in maximising sporting performance.
Understanding GI symptoms
Shone says it's important to make the distinction between the different types of GI problems. "The first is upper GI symptoms such as heart burn, nausea, bloating, belching and vomiting or even the urge to vomit. The second is lower GI symptoms including lower abdominal cramping, diarrhoea, watery stools, flatulence and worse case, GI bleeding," says Shone.
Interestingly, she says that despite common belief, research conducted by Monash University shows that upper GI issues are far more common than the lower GI problems. They've found that in marathoners up to 45 per cent of athletes will report GI distress, of which the majority are upper GI symptoms.
Shone says that longer endurance events such as 24-hour ultra-marathons and multi-stage events tend to increase the risk of experiencing GI symptoms. "Another study by Monash University found that up to 73 per cent of athletes experienced GI issues during longer events, with the majority reporting more upper GI symptoms that lower," she says.
Three things that give runners the runs
Shone says there are three main causes for upper and lower GI symptoms in runners:
Caused by reduced blood flow to your gut. When you run blood is pumped to the exercising muscles like the legs and arms and is diverted away from your stomach and intestines.
The bouncing and jolting affect that running has on the body's organs is linked to flatulence and needing to go to the toilet urgently.
Which has the biggest impact on GI distress. Shone says eating high fibre, fat, protein and fructose foods before a race increases the risk of runners developing GI symptoms. Nutrition is critical to performing well and athletes and weekend warriors can also experience upper and lower GI issues if their carbohydrate consumption during the race is too high, if they ingest too much electrolyte sports drink or if they are dehydrated.
How to prevent and manage GI problems
Shone says runners have to be realistic about what they can control when it comes to GI upsets. "We can't control the physiological or mechanical impacts of running on the gut but we do have control over our nutrition and this is a great place to start," she says.
She recommends the following:
1. Avoid high fat and fibre foods
"I encourage athletes to dial back or avoid high fat and fibre foods such as fruit, veggies, nuts and seeds 12 to 24 hours before an event," says Shone. "Instead, I advise them to eat high carbohydrate white foods such as rice with some fish or chicken, pasta with a simple Napoli sauce and white toast or crumpets with honey or jam."
Shone ads that on the morning of the run it's best have a low fibre, high carbohydrate breakfast. "Replace grain and seed bread with a white or sourdough and because some athletes find that dairy can be a trigger for GI upsets, avoid foods such as yoghurt and milk."
2. Gut training
Many runners put a lot of emphasis on the pre-event meal believing it is the key element to performance. It's important to remember that food eaten throughout the training week and food and fluid consumed during the event is just as important. That's why gut training is critical and Shone recommends runners practice their nutrition in the lead up to an important race or long training run.
"Start experimenting a few months out to better understand how your body reacts to certain foods," says Shone. Then on race day, consuming food and fluid before exercise should be seen as an opportunity to fine-tune carbohydrate and fluid levels and to ensure you feel comfortable and confident.
3. Rise early
Getting up a few hours before a race increases the chances of having a moment in private before setting off for a run. Shone recommends having breakfast one to two hours before a race so that food and fluid can be digested and given the chance to pass through your system with plenty of time to spare. Coffee and gentle exercise will also help to give your bowels a kick along if they're sluggish to start.
4. Get help
The good news is that Shone says it's totally normal for runners to have a nervous poo before an event. But if the above tips don't help you to stop getting the runs while running she recommends making an appointment with an accredited sports dietitian who may help you uncover other reasons for your problems.
Runners runs: a myth or a fact of life? Leave a comment in the Comments section.
The goal of one day completing an ultra-marathon inspires running fanatic Laura Hill to clock up the kilometres each week. With a day job in the corporate world, Laura loves nothing more than lacing up her runners and hitting the pavement to clear her mind and challenge her body.
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