Gastric distress is no laughing matter; the threat of needing the loo while out and about can be a dealbreaker for runners. Laura Hilton tells us how to manage symptoms and run without worry
The anxiety about needing to poo while out on a run will be familiar to many readers. It’s thought that between 30 and 50 per cent of runners experience symptoms of gastric distress (the posh term for runners’ trots), and for some the worry is so great that it puts them off taking part in events they would otherwise have entered. But it doesn’t have to be this way – here’s our guide to runners’ trots and how to avoid them in the future.
Trots while trotting
There are several things known to contribute to runners’ trots. First of all, let’s think about the physiological triggers caused by running: the physical jolting when you run shakes the gut around and can wreak havoc on those with sensitive guts. Also, while running, your blood rushes to the parts of your body that are keeping it functioning – primarily the muscles of the lower body and the heart and lungs – and that means that energy is diverted away from the digestive system. As a result, the gut is no longer moving in the steady way it would during rest.
The second category of triggers are nutritional; the things we eat and drink and when we consume them.
And the third category is mental and emotional impact. Stress and anxiety contribute to runners’ trots and can create something of a vicious circle. If you start worrying about needing a poo when you run, it’s more likely to happen and that will trigger more worry on future runs. Those with IBS are often affected by the trots and periods can play a part too. The good news is that with all these triggers we can work around them to reduce the chances of being caught short.
Know your triggers
There are several notorious trots triggers. The list below shows the sources and foods that are frequent culprits – be warned, there are a lot:
• Caffeine, including tea, coffee, chocolate and some energy products.
• Fibre-rich foods such as wholegrain breads, cereals, pasta, oats, brown rice, peas, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, fruit and veg, and potatoes with skin.
• Wholefood sources such as berries, apples, apricots, avocados, cherries, peaches, plums, dried fruit and pears.
• Sugar-free products including gum, sweets, snack bars and energy foods/drinks, products for diabetics, some pastries, cakes, frozen desserts and chocolates.
• Foods that contain sorbitol, processed food sources, spicy food and alcohol.
All of these foods have the potential to irritate the gut and/or cause food to pass through the gut more quickly (this is called ‘increased gut transit’) so are worth avoiding before a run if you have a tendency to experience runners’ trots.
The best way to identify the foods that are triggers for you is by keeping a journal for a while. Keep a note of what you’ve eaten, how long before a run you’ve eaten it and whether or not you’ve had any symptoms of gastric distress. This will help you learn what foods trigger runners’ trots for you and establish patterns that work for your gut needs and your run schedule.
Timing is also a key factor. If you identify trigger foods, it doesn’t mean you have to avoid them all the time for the rest of your life. It just means steering clear in the lead-up to a run. Using trial and error, you’ll be able to work out the exact time you need to leave after eating certain foods before running and which ones to avoid altogether.
Experiment with your training to see what works and log the results in a journal (and, while you’re experimenting, it might be a good idea to plan routes with toilets along the way to help you feel less anxious about going out).
As mentioned earlier, the physical jolting of the stomach while running can cause runners’ trots, particularly when there is a lot of food in the gut. It can therefore be helpful to run without much ‘debris’ in your digestive system. This doesn’t mean, however, that you should cut out all food and drink prior to a run because then you won’t be properly fuelled for it, and this can lead to illness, deficiencies and injury.
The trick is to eat to fuel your body without carrying unnecessary waste in your gut while running. The way to do this is to opt for foods that pass quickly through your gut (known as ‘fast digestive transit’ foods) – these foods are lower in fat in and fibre, which take longer for us to digest.
• Cereal such as Rice Krispies, Corn Flakes, Frosties
• White pasta with tomato sauce
• Jacket potatoes with baked beans
• Chicken and white rice with mild tomato-based curry
• White bread or bagels with jam and low-fat spread
• Gummy sweets
• Fruit juice
Please be aware that this is not a healthy way to eat all the time, but it can help in the period leading up to a run
Stomachs and stress
The other big and often neglected part of the puzzle is our mental wellbeing. Stress and anxiety can all cause gut distress, which is unfortunate because it can cause a self-perpetuating problem. The more you worry about gut distress, the more likely it is to occur. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a solution, but it might not be a quick fix.
Firstly, try implementing some regular strategies and practices to support your mental wellbeing. This doesn’t necessarily mean meditating for hours, but mindfulness practices and meditation can help. If you find your nerves kickstart your gut on race day, it can help to have an easy pre-event jog; it doesn’t just get your legs moving, it also wakes your gut up so that you get the chance to empty your bowels before you cross the start line.
Another way to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety is by ensuring you’re getting enough good-quality sleep. Sleep is important for our overall health, and this includes gut health, so having a good sleep routine not only gets you physically ready to tackle your runs, but also helps you be in the best mental state for it as well. Getting to bed at a decent hour, trying to avoid screens and stimulants such as caff eine, alcohol and sugar for a few hours before bed and making your bedroom dark and fairly cool will all help you get a good night’s sleep.
Get to know your period patterns
Your menstrual cycles could play a part in your gastric distress. Women who suffer from IBS tend to experience more symptoms around their periods so it may well be that your gut is more sensitive around that time of the month. Everybody’s different, so for some that might mean completely avoiding all IBS-triggering foods at that time, whereas for others it might just be a case of needing to cut down. Again keeping note of where you are in your menstrual cycle and when you experience gastric distress can really help you see patterns and learn how to manage your nutrition and running accordingly so that you reduce or eliminate bouts of it.
Go long, go strong
It’s one thing to manage nutrition leading up to a run, but what about consuming food while you’re out and about? Keeping adequately fuelled throughout longer runs is a toughie; you need enough energy on board to see you through but you don’t want to have to dive into a bush to relieve yourself.
First of all, our advice is that you choose energy products carefully and avoid those that contain sorbitol and/or caffeine. Secondly, as with all the other advice, play around with different products and timings in training. Just because one product or serving size causes runners’ trots for you doesn’t mean they all will.
And here we go back to the journal again; make a note of the products you use, how much and how often and of any runners’ trot symptoms you experience, and that should help you find energy products that keep you well-fuelled without you having an accident.
Runners’ trots is most definitely one of the most frustrating parts of running for many. However, if you take some time to figure out your triggers and ways to avoid them, you’ll no longer be limited to routes-with-loos and your path to the finish line will be obstacle free.