The rain pelted down, heavy marbles that bounced and broke on the asphalt. The sound of passing cars took on an ominous pitch as they sped over the soaking road. I saw an opening and sprinted to the opposite side. Just as I leapt over an ominous puddle onto the opposing sidewalk, I felt a searing pain in my abdomen. I stopped my watch and stood, grimacing. My anxious eyes pin-balled around, as I mentally churned out the distance to the nearest gas station, or coffee shop, anything! I spotted a subdivision under construction around the corner, and cautiously jogged over. I sighed with deep relief when I spotted the familiar smurf-coloured object: the construction port-a-potty.
Running stimulates the bowels. There are plenty of articles out there offering explanations for this phenomenon, and many offering advice on how to prevent a mid-run pit stop from becoming necessary. But sometimes, nature will call – nay – unleash a thunderous howl that must be answered.
Real talk: I have IBS. I deal with this problem on a regular (or irregular – get it?) basis. I find that the harder I train, the more often I experience issues. Stress, caffeine, alcohol, and all manner of foods can worsen the issue. But I don’t let it stop me from training. I’ve learned some creative tricks to deal with the problem mid-run, even when you have… the runs.
Plan Your Route Strategically!
When you are feeling a little “off”, or just to be safe, plan your route. (I like using the mapmyrun.com app). Locate public washrooms, and build your route around these key locations. Alternatively, locate coffee shops, fast food chains, and gas stations with unlocked washrooms. I often use fast-food chains, as they are often busy enough not to notice someone slip in and out without buying anything. You can always ask the staff to use the facilities kindly if it feels awkward. I’ve found it rare to be denied.
If you have the option, choosing country roads and trails for long runs is also a strategic move. This way, you have plenty of opportunities to stop exactly when you need to, in a bush or behind some trees. Be respectful. Be mindful of private property, and watch your step if you leave the trail or road. Barbed wire, or hidden little streams can all be easily missed if you are in a panic. And don’t leave trash!
Lastly, you can always plan a circuitous route around your house. Think of your neighbourhood like a large track, and measure out several smaller distances (1km, 3km, 5km) that you can build on to make a run of any distance. As a bonus, you can always use your house as an aid station with hydration set out for yourself as well.
Dress and Pack Appropriately
Toilet paper. Kleenex. Paper towel. Anything. Stash this in a pocket and bring it with you. I bring some with me on almost every run. You can buy biodegradable toilet paper from camping supply stores, or online. There is nothing worse than not having toilet paper when you need it. Pop it in a ziplock bag if it is hot or rainy, and stash another bag to bring back any waste.
When you plan your outfit, avoid too-tight waistbands or restrictive waist packs. The pressure they exert on your abdomen can worsen digestive irritation. Changing my approach in this area was a game-changer. I’ve tried a ton of waist packs, and this Nike one is my favourite.
Train Your Digestive Load
When my IBS is acting up, I have found that I seem to have a limit of running stress I can tolerate before a bathroom stop is imminent. This manifests itself usually in time (about 40 minutes of running). I find if I am running intervals or tempo pace, this additional stress can reduce that amount of time. By building your weekly miles slowly (like you should be doing anyway!) you can prepare your body to handle more and more stress.
If you are trying to avoid a stop, take it slow and easy. Reducing the “bouncing” effect when you are descending hills by staying low to the ground and taking smaller steps can also reduce irritation.
Another tactic is to split up a longer run into two shorter distances. Giving your gut a rest and then finishing the run later can reduce the amount of stops you will need.
Get in a Good Rhythm
I find morning runs are great for me to keep this problem at bay. When I am eating right and on a regular routine, I am able to run in the morning without fear of anything unexpected happening. Since my food is digested from the day before, and I don’t eat anything before the run, there is little chance for bloating, pain, or irritation to cause any issues. Just in case, I always start my routes running past the same McDonalds, so I won’t be worried about it when
Beware Running “Fuel”
It took me longer than I’d like to admit that most pre-workout drink mixes and hydration mixes worsen my digestive issues. Many gels have had the same effect. Artificial sweeteners, fructose, and citric acid seem to be triggers for me. Figure out what works for you. Test new products on short distances. Avoid using them altogether when you are already feeling that familiar stomach gurgle.
I find that sometimes even water can increase my sense of urgency to go while I’m running. To mitigate this, I’ve found that taking tiny, frequent sips is the best way to go. Don’t forget to hydrate before your run as well, as frequent evacuation can be dehydrating.
And Obviously… Nutrition
I’m not a nutritionist, I don’t even play one on TV. I have done plenty of research and personal experimentation, but have found that no diet alone has been able to solve my issues. Avoiding coffee, alcohol, FODMAPs, and too much fibre has helped. I often take peppermint oil capsules to soothe my gut, especially before runs. Perhaps this is another blog post for another time.