Poop Diaries: Avoiding the Runs on your Run


My name is Melissa and I love talking about poop. That's right. Why you ask? Because, we all do it, we all have issues with it at some time or another and we can learn a lot from it if only we would be a little more open to talking about it. So for those a little squeamish, you may want to skip this blog post. For the rest of you please read on!

The human body is basically a donut. This is because the digestive system starts at the mouth and follows a continuous route through the stomach, small and large intestines and finally ends at, well, the 'exit', your anus. The inside of your gastrointestinal tract is therefore outside your body. Whoa!


You can test this statement with a thought experiment designed by Pete Smif from the University of Liverpool :

  • Touch your cheek.
  • Move your finger inside your mouth
  • Imagine moving your finger down your esophagus...
  • ... and through your stomach, small and large intestines and emerging from your anus....
  • Now wave to yourself

So cool! But let's get back to runners trots. 

The sudden-onset of needing to poop is common among runners, particularly for those of us who run long and hard. The main reason for runners’ "distress" (cramping, diarrhea) is that the gut simply shuts down after a lot of exertion. There are a few things that seem to contribute to this:

  • Running can speed up your metabolism and stimulate contractions of your bowels, this can move food through your digestive system more quickly.
  • Your internal organs are being jostled about from the physical movement of running, this can add to the urgency.
  • Over 80% of blood is shunted away from the GI tract to the working muscles when running. This leads to a physiological stress response and simply put, the gut urgency to 'release' its contents is a reflection of the stress intensity.  
  • Hydration plays a role here too. If you drink lots of fluids, your stool may be softer finding its way to the rectum faster. 
  • Lastly, on race morning, your pre-race jitters can increase stress hormones which can also have a "stool-loosening" effect.

Good times! So what can you do about it...

Avoid Common Food Triggers
There are a few foods that are known irritants to the gut. These include caffeine, spicy foods, nuts and insoluble fiber like dark leafy greens (think kale, spinach, chard - especially when raw). In the few days before your race, limit these foods unless you know that you tolerate them well.  


Pre-run foods
If you regularly eat eggs and bacon before a long run or load up your morning smoothie with 2 cups of raw kale...you may want to reconsider your pre-run breakfast options. This is because fat, protein and fiber take longer to digest and so will still be jostling about in your stomach as you start your run. Generally, the safer foods to eat before running are higher in simple carbohydrates and lower in the proteins, fats and fiber. Personally I love me a smoothie with coconut water/tart cherry juice, frozen fruit, banana, 1/2 scoop whey protein, and greens powder. Oatmeal with fresh fruit or a yam/potato hash is also great. But we're all different so experiment with what works best and stick with it. 

Experiment with Fuel Type
Concentrated sugars like maltodextrin or even glucose in gels and chews can be really irritating to the gut and may cause immediate discomfort. The only way around this is to experiment with different running nutrition options. Personally, I try to avoid high sugar gels and gummies as much as possible and rely mostly on whole food carb sources like dried fruit (dates, apricots, mango, ginger, raisins etc), homemade energy balls, homemade energy gel (e.g., maple syrup, powdered ginger, salt), chocodates etc. I do, however, know which gummies work for me and have those on reserve for races. 


Slow Down
I realize telling runners to slow down is the kiss of death and that you likely won't do it. That's fine. But just so you know, slowing down to a walk can really help alleviate GI symptoms fast. Once blood is able to return to the gut, normal digestive functions can begin again. If you've just left the aid station and gobbled down a bacon sandwich...maybe walk it off for a few kilometers. The rest of the race will be so much more enjoyable!  

Reduce Stress
I know i know. Easier said than done. But stress reduction is essential, both on and before race day, to support your overall digestion and health. The stress of race day can cause temporary changes to digestive enzymes which can limit the nutrient absorption and use by the body. This means on the day you most need it, you are probably more depleted in nutrients than on 'regular' days. So try to carve out a little time in your life (especially right before race day) for some restorative yoga, meditation or anything quiet and calming.  

As a last note, the occasional runners trots is pretty normal. But if you are experiencing chronic issues there is likely something else going on like food sensitivities/allergies or chronic gut microbiome imbalances. Addressing this requires a more rigorous and thorough approach so feel free to contact me or your health care practitioner for more information. I'd obviously love to talk about it!


© Melissa Evanson 2017.  For permission to reproduce or repost this post, email melissaevansonrhn@gmail.com