run, janelle, run!

Post-run gastrointestinal problems

Two things are infinite: the universe and human poop; and I’m not sure about the universe. -Einstein

Call it ‘workout stomach’. Call it ‘runner’s trots’. If you’ve ever performed a workout or gone for a really hard run, then chances are likely that, at some point, you’ve had to high-tail it to the nearest restroom ASAP.

While embarrassing as workout stomach might be, according to a study published in the September 2009 issue of the Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Journal (LWW), gastrointestinal distress is quite common for runners:

The frequency is almost twice as high during running than during other endurance sports as cycling or swimming and 1.5 – 3.0 times higher in the elite athletes than the recreational exercisers. [source]

Presented with this bit of information, are we then to postulate that running and GI distress go hand in hand?

Perhaps not.

Let’s begin by taking a look at the definition of “runner’s trots”.

What is “runners’ trots”?

Runner’s trots can best be defined as a sudden urge to have a bowel movement either during or immediately following a run or strenuous workout. Symptoms can include any of the following:

  • Abdominal cramps
  • Lower gastrointestinal (GI) distress
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Flatulence

It is estimated that anywhere from 20 to 60 percent of long distance runners as well as triathletes suffer from this condition.

Taking a closer look at GI distress in runners

While some studies suggest that consuming a diet high in fiber, caffeine or dairy the night before  a run, or leading up to just before you head out for a run, there are even more studies to suggest that the possible causes for GI distress in runners is more complex.

When you eat food, the food travels from your mouth down your esophagus and into your stomach. This process takes a matter of seconds (depending on how fast you eat). Next, your stomach works to digest the food, which can take anywhere from two to four hours on average, depending on the amount of food you’ve eaten as well as the composition of the food that was consumed (some foods take longer to digest). Partially digested food then moves from your stomach to your small intestines where it will continue to break down even further for another five to six hours before heading into your colon. After all is said and done, it can take anywhere from 20 to 30 hours from the time you sit down to that steak dinner to the time where you eliminate any excess via your local toilet.

Given the aforementioned information, one could only then assume that if you plan out your meals in accordance with when you plan on working out, you’ll be able to completely avoid getting workout stomach.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. And in fact, most seasoned runners who have a bowel movement just prior to going for a run often “feel the urge” to go during their runs or just after. We are literally “running for the bathroom”…so, what gives?

According to an article published in 2007 by Paul Carmona, there are two wholly separate issues to consider beyond the usual suspects: mechanical trauma and changes in blood flow to the digestive system.

Mechanical trauma– This is the notion that running produces the jostling of the lower intestines, which may produce more rapid movement of fecal material towards the colon (hence the urge to have a bowel movement).

Changes in blood flow– According to Carmona, research indicates that exercise decreases blood flow to the large intestines by up to 80 percent. This decreased blood flow to the intestines coupled with altered hormone and absorption levels, jostling up and down motions to your gut while running as well as pre-race anxiety/stress and dehydration may very well have us running for the nearest restroom. [source]

So, what can we do (if anything) to prevent runner’s trots from occurring?

Before you exercise

If you find that you are experiencing gastrointestinal distress either during or immediately following a run with some frequency, you may want to start by keeping a food diary. Doing so will force you to keep track of all of the food and beverages that you put into your body, and from there you will be able to start a process of elimination (no pun intended) with regards to being able to identify foods and beverages that seem to add to your GI distress. Other suggestions include but are not limited to the following:

GI problems solved:

  • HYDRATE– As an athlete, it is so incredibly important to make sure that you are well hydrated. Don’t wait until you are thirsty either, because by then it is too late!
  • Limite fiber intake– Fiber is good for you. However, after you’ve had a few ‘close calls’ and/or find that you are spending a little too much quality time in your bathroom sitting high on the porcelain throne, you may want to choose when you eat your high fiber meals versus when you decide to go for a hard run and/or workout.
  • Run around bathrooms-If you know that you are prone to unexpected stops during your runs, plan on running along a route that includes bathrooms at various points. If you are at a gym or are doing a track workout, make sure that there is a working bathroom within running sight!
  • Don’t eat before you run- Instead of that age old adage that warns us not to eat before we swim, it should really apply towards running. Running and eating do not mix. Avoid eating for at least 2 -3 hours prior to running or working out.
  • Nix the caffeine and warm fluids- While this is not necessarily true for everyone, some studies suggest that consuming caffeine in the form of a hot cup of tea or coffee prior to working out may actually speed up the process of elimination- which is something you’ll obviously want to avoid.
  • Gradually increase your workout intensity- A lot of the time, runners (and other athletes) experience GI problems simply due to the fact that they are training too hard too fast. Instead, try to gradually increase your workout intensity. Doing so will give your body a chance to get used to running at a certain pace for a certain amount of time.
  • OTC meds-If you have a big race coming up, or if you are participating in an event where you know that toilets will be hard to come by, you may want to consider using an over-the-counter (OTC) anti-diarrhea product such as Imodium. However, it should be noted that this is not something you should use with any sort of regularity.
  • Talk to your doctor-If things still aren’t “normal” with your GI, then you may want to consider having a heart-to-heart with your medical practitioner to find out what is going on.

**For an additional list of helpful foods to eat in order to ease GI problems and hopefully avoid having workout stomach, check out this article at Runner’s World.

Give me a place to poop, and I shall move the world. – Archimedes

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2 thoughts on “Post-run gastrointestinal problems

  1. Deb

    Thank you do much! I came across a link to this post from another website and I’m so happy I did! I’m currently training for a half marathon (I’ve done three in the past) but this time around I’m having a heck of a time with GI issues…it’s kinda always been there in the past races but not so debilitating as this time around! 8km is my magic mark…any distance below and I’m fine…anything over and I’m hurting! I still have time so in going to play around with my diet…thanks again for talking about something that is poo-poo…literally!

  2. janelle Post author

    Hey Deb!

    Thanks for reading! GI issues are never any fun. I’m glad you were able to get something out of this article, and I hope you figure out what works best for you so you can get past that 8k mark without any issues :)

    -j

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