Disclaimer: I will be mentioning poop in this post, if you don’t want to read about poop, a normal daily function, or human anatomy go no further.
The iconic photo from the 1982 Women’s Ironman in Kona shows the leader, 23-year-old Julie Moss, collapsed, delirious, and covered in her own poop after 140 miles of swimming, biking, and running. She had been holding back her bowels since the 16 mile marathon mark, and within the last half mile, the Ironman leader could hold it in no more. She sat by the side of the road unbelievably embarrassed for a full 2 minutes when she asked herself, “What kind of mess can I live with?” She decided she could deal with “the ultimate, giant, chocolate mess.” She got up, reeking of feces, only to get passed in the last few seconds. No one cared who passed her to win the 1982 Ironman, the cameras and focus were on Moss for her veracity, courage, and strength.
The scenario isn’t pretty. You’re out on a nice run, with no ill feelings before you leave, and you find that a couple miles in you’re getting bad cramps. All of sudden you have to go! You either find a bathroom, or slowly and gingerly walk the miles home. It has happened to me, and almost every runner I have talked to. Runner’s diarrhea, also called “runner’s trots”, is not uncommon. According to the Oklahoma Center for Digestive Research, 72% of conditioned athletes complain of lower intestinal problems. 82% of marathoners complain of gastric problems while racing. Often runners are embarrassed discussing the subject, but in this post I’m putting runner’s trots front and center to answer why our bodies do this to us and how to prevent it.
Currently, the exact reason for this poop phenomenon is unknown, but several theories exist. When faced with a challenge, an especially hard run or a race, our bodies react to the evolutionary flight or fight response programmed in our brains. This response tells the organs in our bodies to step it up, and the colon and our intestines start working faster than normal. Others prescribe it to the jostling of the intestines while running, increasing the movement of material through the colon. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic theorize that runner’s diarrhea is due to the transport of blood away from the colon. More blood is transported to the heart, respiratory system, and muscles. This leads to the inability of the colon to absorb water and materials and everything moves quickly to the end of the line.
The buildup of material at the sphincter sends urgent signals to the brain that it’s time to go! Unfortunately, we only have control over one half of the sphincter. The other, more dominant, internal half, is connected to the spinal cord via the pudental nerve, which we have no voluntary control over. So, you can hold it for a while, but not forever.
When Julie Moss ran her Ironman, we didn’t know as much about nutrition for runners as we do now. As you can imagine, diet plays an important role in preventing runner’s trots. But there are further steps past diet that can also play an important role in prevention.
- Check your fiber intake. If you are eating a lot of natural foods, a vegetarian, or you eat a lot of brown rice, wheat bread, granola, or dried fruits, chances are you are eating too much fiber. The easiest place to cut out fiber, according to runner/nutritionist Nancy Clark, is in your breakfast. Instead of eating Kashi, All Bran, or other bran cereals, opt for eggs, yogurt, fresh fruit or a lower-fiber cereal.
- Limit artificial sweeteners found in gum, diet soda, candy, and other sugar-free foods. The sugar alcohols in these foods can increase colon production.
- Before running don’t drink caffeine, eat high-fat foods, or high-fiber foods.
- You can also try not eat anything several hours before a run or race, but this is something that varies from person to person.
- Try taking a gentle anti-diarrheal before a run or race.
- Drink more water! Drink plenty of water before, during, and after your run. Avoid drinking hot liquids such as tea before a run, as the warmth can speed up your colon.
3. During your run
- Wear loose fitting clothing and if you use a water belt, make sure it isn’t pushing down on your stomach.
- Experiment with your energy bars/gels. Sometimes it’s that Mint Chocolate Gu that’s to blame. Some of the energy products on the market can be difficult to digest. Try using more natural energy sources for your run such as dried fruit, honey sticks, or fig newtons.
- If you are still worried about a bout of runner’s trots, plan your runs so that you pass an easily accessible bathroom.
If you try some of the above suggestions and nothing seems to help, you can try cutting down your distance to where no issues occur. Run at this distance for several weeks and slowly increase your speed and distance. Our bodies are amazingly adaptable and it might just take the hint that you want to run without having to go to the bathroom! If the situation remains serious, see your doctor.
As runners, we know this sort of thing happens. There’s a saying: “The race is won or lost in the porta-potty”. So, let’s get over the embarrassment of it. The more information we share on nutrition, diet, and little tricks, the less likely runner’s trots are going to happen. And if you do find yourself gingerly walking 2 miles home to make it back to the bathroom (as I have done), laugh about it! It will probably make for a pretty entertaining story for your running partners.
Julie Moss was inaugurated into the Ironman Hall of Fame in 1994. She is no longer humiliated by her “chocolate mess”. In fact, she’s more embarrassed by the hat she is wearing in her famous photo. She says, “I’ve discovered that winning is not as fulfilling or as profound as when you are completely taken to your physical limit and, maybe, dumped off a little on the other side.”
So go get ‘em fellow runners. And may your runs be trot free.
Ashley is a geologist at Schlumberger, specializing in geologic modeling software. She completed her Masters degree in geology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is an avid runner, cyclist, and rock climber. She will pretty much race anything and everything. You can find her hanging out on White Oak in Houston, TX or climbing and running in Austin.