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Running and Bathroom Troubles

“What about bathroom troubles? A newbie’s worst nightmare at times!” – Roberta B.E.

From the expert, Dezza C.

It’s not just a newbie concern. I’ve been running for more than a decade now, and this is one of my nightmares! There I am in the middle of my run or a big race event and all of a sudden I feel the urge or even worse the body just lets it go without warning! Fortunately, it’s still a nightmare from a faraway place!

It happens to elite and veteran long-distance runners as well.  About 30-80 percent of runners are affected by GI (gastrointestinal) disturbances at least once. The most debilitating and scary of these GI issues? The sudden and overwhelming need to go number 2!  In cases of extreme frequency or discomfort, this is known as runner’s diarrhea, or runner’s colitis, or nervous diarrhea. Some of us learn from that one time and try to control what we can, some doesn’t have a choice.

There’s quite a list of factors that include the physical jostling of the organs, decreased blood flow to the intestines, changes in intestinal hormone secretion, and pre-race anxiety and stress. Food moves more quickly through the bowels of athletes in training. For most people, these issues are relatively minor. Having to make a stop at the port-a-potty before a race is completely normal. It only becomes a problem when your toilet stops are getting in the way of your run.

Here are some tips that might help as your mileage gets up to the double digits and you are out there longer:

  1. At least 2 days before your long run, limit or avoid high-fiber and gas-producing foods, such as beans, bran, fruit, and salad. If you run every day, experiment to find a tolerable level of fiber for you.
  2. Hydrate all throughout the week so you can stay regular and not needing to go when you don’t want it to happen. I recommend a high fiber diet for the rest of the week. This helps with constipation too.
  3. Don’t try a new food or hydration the week or day before, and most especially day off race event.
  4. Test your choice of fuel for the race during long runs. For some, gels and bars can cause problems.
  5. If you are more sensitive than others… avoid high-fat foods, caffeine, and sugar alcohols.
  6. Avoid eating 2 hours before a long run or the race.
  7. Stay hydrated. Adequate fluid intake is important for many aspects of health and performance while exercising, including reducing your risk of GI symptoms.
  8. Make your own bathroom routine in the morning. Try to get your system going beforehand. Having a little food or coffee/tea (warm liquids have been known to speed food through the digestive tract) to activate the bowels and heading to the bathroom before you get out for your run. Eating or drinking something small can activate the gastrocolic reflex, which essentially pushes things out when new food comes in. The body can be trained this way. I know for me, it works. But sometimes when I’m not at home (in a hotel, out-of-town race), I have familiarity issues. You know, when you have to go but you’re having “stage fright” because of that unfamiliar toilet! HAHA!  This happens too! In this case, you just have to accept that it’s not going to happen. Relax and focus on your run.
  9. If you’ve done all that you can to avoid this from happening and still having issues many times over, it could be a sign of something more serious going on. It’s time to talk to your doctor and find out what is really going on.

My daily routine: I make sure I get the business done before I leave the house, it’s out of the way and I’m free to do what I want… that is until nature calls again. But at least I have the whole day worry-free, running or not… So, I wake up. I drink a big glass of water a few minutes after, then drink my usual hot cup of coffee to get things going, bathroom done… warm liquids have been known to speed food through the digestive tract.

I’ve also done my fair share of “trial and error” on which food helps and what to avoid. Because of this experimentation, I know what works for me and I just eat what’s normal for me. No special diet to follow. Start with your diet, keep the food that makes you feel good all the time and eliminate what doesn’t. Make this your normal diet with adjustment to the amount as needed to fuel your training. This is very individualized, what works for one may not work for others. That’s why it is important to incorporate nutrition with your training. You are not just avoiding GI issues, you will also learn what fuel will work best for you during your long distance race as well as your daily diet. As for me, the more I train the more I learn what I can tolerate and my race day/weekend food list is getting longer. Hooray! I am now moving into real food as fuel, like boiled potatoes and pretzels, bacon, etc. Hopefully, someday soon, I will find a chocolate bar that will not wreck me. LOL!

Good luck with your training! Remember to enjoy the journey towards your goal. Run Happy always!

More about Dezza

Dezza is a ten-year Registered Dietitian Nutritionist from Pittsburgh, PA who practices martial arts and runs marathons in her free time. She and her husband, Jason, are the parents of two young, independent teenagers of whom she’s very proud and fiercely protective of. Her mission is to work towards becoming an inspiration for her kids and hopes that by being out there she can inspire others too.