Ever felt the overwhelming urge to poop while running?
You are not alone.
Famed runners Utta Pippig, Tegla Loroupe, Steve Jones, Rosie Ruiz, and Paula Radcliffe have all had to take a sudden bathroom break while competing.
In fact in one study of triathletes it was found that 93% had experienced gastrointestinal (GI) problems.
As you will see below our physiology means that we are likely to experience the need for a mid-run poop. But just because the need to go to the restroom while running is extremely common it doesn’t mean it is inevitable.
Below we’ll show what you can do to prevent unwanted urges to hit the head during training and on race day.
Why Runners Need To Suddenly Need to Go?
The exact reason why we need to poop when running isn’t clear.
Or to be more exact, there are multiple different contributing factors which contribute to us needing to take a toilet break when we run. Dr Stephen de Boer, a Mayo Clinic Dietician, identified the major causes.
- Reason #1 -Stress
Ever had an important speech, job interview or examination?
Chances are that leading up to the big event you felt the need to take a bathroom break.
According to the Calm Cinic, Stress and anxiety can cause us to want to poop. This stressed related need to poop is caused by the activation of our “fight or flight” system.
As we feel anxious our body starts to slow the speed at which we digest our food. In turn this leads to GI.
The adrenaline surging through your body also causes the blood and water flow to be redistributed. Consequently your intestine does not filter water efficiently. A great survival mechanism but one which can be hell on runners.
- Reason #2 -Your Insides Are Moving
The way our intestines are constantly jostled as we run can cause you to have to make a pit stop at a portapotty.
Comparing the constant impact a runner undergoes with the relatively smooth movements of a cyclist or swimmer.
It’s no surprise that this constant jarring might loosen up what's contained in the intestines.
How To Avoid Having To Poop While Running
So, now we have an understanding of why you might need to poop during your race, here’s what you can do to prevent it.
Do Some Detective Work
It’s time to embrace your inner Sherlock Holmes. A food journal is a great way of helping to identify which foods in your diet might be acting as a trigger.
No two runners are alike but there are certain foods you should pay close attention. Alcohol and coffee are frequent causes of GI.
Start by removing cereals from your diet. If that is not helping then move onto whole grain, vegetables and fruits. You don’t want to remove these healthy fibers from your diet completely, but eliminating three days before you are competing can helping to stop fiber related GI problems.
Finally many people are sensitive to dairy. Try removing milk, cream, cheese, and other dairy related products.
In particular you should be looking at what you are eating the night before your runs. If you see a recurring food or drink then try taking it out for a week or two.
Track whether this makes a difference to your bowels when you are running.
It takes time for your last pre-race meal to pass through your body. If you are finding the need to go mid-run then try shifting your main pre-run meal further back.
This will your body more time to digest the food and move through your intestine.
In conjunction with moving your meal time back, try reducing the size of your meal. A smaller meal will lead to less stress on your intestine when running.
Reduce The Jarring Of Your Intestine
As mentioned above one of the causes of GI is the constant jostling of the intestine. While this jostling can’t be completely eliminated it can be reduced by improving your running form.
The way to do this is work on how much your body is moving up and down as you run. Try and picture about one inch above your head an invisible ceiling.
As you are running try and not “break through the ceiling”. By shortening this vertical oscillation you can reduce the amount of movement on the intestines.
Increase Eccentric Training Into Your Workouts
Another way to improve your running form, and reduce intestinal jarring, is to increase eccentric training at the gym.
Eccentric training can be thought of as the down part of leg exercises. When you are doing lunges or squats in the gym slow down when you are in the downwards motion of the exercise.
Eccentric exercises both lengthen and strengthen your muscles. This in turn means that your body does drop as far for each foot stride.
Do A Warm-up Run
If you find that you are constantly needing a bathroom break during training then you may need to re-organize your route. Start your training runs with a trip once around the block.
This should be sufficient to start get your bowels moving. Stop back and home to do your business, then head out to finish your training run. If you know there is going to be a public bathroom near the start of your training route (Hello Starbucks!) then this can work just as well.
The same idea applies on race day.
Go for a light warm-up before the starting whistle. This light jog will get the blood flowing and the bowels moving. Then make good use of the port-a-loos. Remember to allow yourself enough time for this pre-race ritual.
Have A Light Snack Or Small Drink
A light jog is not the only way to start your bowels moving. When we eat or drink something it's a signal to our body to push out what is already in the intestine.
This is called the gastrocolic reflex.
Take advantage of this reflex by having a small glass of water or bite to eat before the run. Don’t over do it.
Filling up on too much food will just make your mid-run bathroom break all that much more urgent. But a small amount of food can do wonders to get your bowels moving.
We put together a great list of pre-race food your can read here.
Reduce Your Pre-Run Nerves
Pre-competition stress is one of the most common causes of the race day runs. So if you want avoid GI issues then it makes sense to reduce your level of stress.
One of the best ways to achieve this (and improve your overall well being) is to introduce meditation into your daily routine.
By embracing mindfulness you can help to get control of the run away thoughts that lead to competition stress. Build the habit of meditation by scheduling a 10 - 20 meditation session before or after your training runs.
By linking meditation to an activity that you are already doing - running training - it is more likely to stick as a habit.
On the day of your race pay pay attention to your breathing. If you are feeling stress or anxiety, deep breath and slow.
Control your breath for a minimum of one minute and you will notice that your anxiety levels start to drop.
Not only is this is good for avoiding the need to poop when competing, it’s also an excellent way of gaining pre-race focus and enable you to perform at your best.
If the above doesn’t work for you then there may be other issues at play. Consult with your doctor to see if there may be other reasons why you are having controlling your bowel movements. In particular if you see blood when you poop, your GI doesn’t stop when you finish running, or you are rapidly losing weight, then you need to consider medical attention.
The need to poop is in general a completely normal reaction to the physical changes that running has on the body. By adapting your diet, running style and pre-run routine you should be able to avoid an embarrassing poop pit-stop next time you compete.