Over the next few blog posts we're going to be looking at some of the more gnarly and hard to deal with issues that so many active people experience on a daily basis... such as stomach cramps, runners' trots and hitting the wall.
These common issues can be very unpleasant, upsetting and even embarrassing, but what's most frustrating for us is that they can be avoided all together.
Runner’s diarrhoea or runners’ trots, along with other terms that are far more descriptive and less polite, is a term used to describe the unpleasant feeling of needing the toilet when running. Sometimes the feeling of needing to go can become an unstoppable urge with embarrassing or even race ruining consequences.
When we receive feedback from Veloforte customers or meet up with them at running events, ‘tummy troubles’ are amongst their number one concerns.
Not only is it painful and embarrassing, it can ruin your race.
We know, from our own experience and our customers, that eating our natural bars & bites can make a huge difference to people's digestive issues – it can even change your running and racing for the better!
So, we've pulled together the best advice on what causes tummy trouble, as knowing how to manage and avoid it could save your shorts and your PB!
What are runner’s trots?
Runner’s diarrhoea is simply characterised as frequent loose bowel movements during and immediately after a run. Other symptoms can include nausea, stomach cramps, bad wind, abdominal pain and the urge to go to the toilet.
Causes of runner’s trots
Runner’s trots usually occur during long distance runs, anything over three miles. There is no definitive research into why this problem hits some runners and not others, but there are a few likely causes and behaviours that exacerbate it in those who suffer with it:
- Running requires significant blood flow to the muscles, diverting blood away from the intestinal tract and interrupting digestion.
- Endurance running causes hormonal changes and hormone secretion from the gut that may speed up the passage of food.
- Running creates a lot of ‘bouncing’ movement in the abdominal cavity and it could be the physical shaking up of stomach, gut and bowel contents.
- Food and drinks may irritate the gut, so care needs to be taken of pre-run meals and energy foods consumed when running.
- Finally, nerves, stress and anxiety play a part - you may not have runner’s diarrhoea for your local Park Run but line-up for your big event and you may feel differently!
For a variety of reasons food transits faster through the digestive system of regular runners, sometimes leading to uncomfortable urges and embarrassing accidents.
When do you get runner’s trots?
Runner’s diarrhoea is a problem directly related to your running, it may start before your run or during it and normally clears up within a couple of hours of completing your run.
If it is still occurring after 24 hours, it's something else and may need medical treatment.
How can I prevent runner’s diarrhoea?
Diet plays a big part in runner’s trots and diarrhoea, although it is not the exclusive reason.
Even very experienced runners who have honed their race day diet to perfection still have the occasional awkward incident. Paula Radcliffe’s impromptu stop in the 2005 marathon has become the stuff of legends, and reassures us lesser runners that these incidents, whilst unpleasant, are ‘normal’.
Some runners are more prone than others, but every runner would be wise to avoid the following foods that could potentially aggravate the stomach and gut.
6 foods that cause tummy troubles & meals to try instead
What you eat will make a big difference to how your stomach feels so here are some foods to give the swerve, especially on race day, and some bowel-friendly alternatives too!
Gels get thrust at you from all angles when you are a runner and are frequently offered at feed stations.
Whilst the quick energy boost and easy to swallow on-the-go format is appealing, the highly synthetic, high-glucose content can play havoc with your digestion.
Many runners put their stomach issues at the door of gels so either avoid them all together or limit the number you take, and always practice in training with the food you intend to race with, so you know how your body reacts.
Try instead: As an alternative to gels, natural ‘real food' bars such as Veloforte supply quick acting energy in the form of dried fruit and in a palatable tasty way your body finds easier to deal with.
It’s the type of food we are designed to be eating during endurance exercise! None of that gunky, gloopy synthetic sweetness that hangs round your mouth, just clean, fresh tasting food that is good for your body and good for your performance.
High-fibre cereal & muesli:
High-fibre foods are great for gut health and keeping your bowels regular but are best avoided before a big run or race.
Fibre speeds up gut transit and combined with the other factors associated with running makes loose bowel movements more likely. Keep this meal in your weekly routine but avoid before hard or long training runs and definitely avoid on race days.
Try instead: Lower fibre options such as whole grain or white toast spread with peanut butter and banana. Less fibre than the muesli and with some protein to slow down digestion this will provide plenty of energy for your run but not cause any stomach issues.
To avoid fibre on race day a simple rule of thumb is to swap brown for white – whether that is bread, rice or pasta.
Artificial sweeteners are always best avoided, but especially so on run days.
There are many different types of synthetic sweetener, and they turn up in the strangest of places, so take good care to read the labels on any processed foods.
Sweeteners such as Xylitol and Sorbitol are sugar alcohols, they contain less calories per gram than white table sugar and do not raise your blood sugar level the way ordinary sugar does so are popular in diet products. However, sugar alcohols cannot be properly digested in your gut, they pull in additional water and can start to ferment, causing wind and bloating. They are so good at disrupting the bowel they are often found in laxatives!
Try instead: plain water and avoid fizzy ‘diet’ drinks, eat real fruit and natural sweeteners for your energy and your flavours.
Caffeine is a double-edged sword for endurance athletes.
It perks us up, reduces feelings of fatigue and can even help manage our pain perception when the going gets tough.
Caffeine can speed up our metabolism and that applies to all areas of our body, a large espresso in the morning is one of the best ways to ‘get things moving’, if you know what we mean!
We can use caffeine as an ergogenic aid, but it needs caution before a run, especially if you are prone to diarrhoea or the trots.
Try instead: low caff or de-caff products to replace your morning coffee on run days. If you are using caffeinated products during races, practice with them in training. Look for sources of caffeine such as guarana which is gentler and slower to release than caffeine from coffee.
You don’t have to be lactose intolerant to find a surfeit of milk problems upsets your stomach when running.
Start by cutting out milk and dairy on run days to see if that makes a difference and consider cutting it out of your diet altogether if you have diarrhoea at other times too.
Be aware that some sports drinks and recovery drinks contain lactose and dairy derivatives so if you are lactose intolerant you might be consuming it without realising. By the way, if you're looking for protein then avoid whey powder too, try egg white.
Try instead: Oat, almond and rice milk are amongst the most common dairy replacements. Oat milk does a great job of frothing up so is the barista’s favourite when it comes to your next cappuccino.
Pulses & other fibrous foods:
As with the muesli and high-fibre breakfast cereals watch out for high-fibre foods in other meals during the day.
Beans and pulses are common culprits; we all know the consequences of eating beans on toast! High-fibre fruits such as prunes are also best avoided in large quantities. Whilst these are healthy diet choices most of the time they should be skipped on race day.
Try instead: white bread, bagels, white rice and pasta will all supply carbohydrate in an easy to digest form. In the two hours before your race or long run they are a better choice for fuel and for your gut. Go white for racing is a simple slogan.
Hot & spicy food:
Hot and spicy food is an obvious no-no, and the culprit is the capsaicin found in chili peppers.
Capsaicin speeds up dietary processes and helps food to transit quicker, it stimulates digestive enzymes to be released and can also affect the balance of your gut bacteria. A lot of capsaicin in a meal can lead to fast digestion and loose bowel movements even if you aren’t running the next day.
Try instead: simple, plain foods or flavour with herbs rather than spices for food that is tasty but less likely to trigger an attack. Save your curry for after your run, not the night before!
Additional tips to manage runner’s diarrhoea
- Allow two hours between your last solid food and your run to avoid stomach and digestive issues.
- Limit or stop use of anti-inflammatory medicines which have been shown to increase the likelihood of diarrhoea.
- Avoid ‘diet’ products as they are a common source of sweeteners such as xylitol and sorbitol which act as laxatives.
- Drink plenty of water and run, when possible, in cool temperatures as heat and dehydration can lead to digestive issues.
- Build up your distances slowly; just as you need to train your legs to cope with endurance exercise you also need to train your stomach.
- Always eat the same foods in training as racing to make sure you know how your stomach will tolerate them.
- Stick to natural sources of energy that your stomach is designed to cope with.
Other causes of runner’s diarrhoea
Running may well be exacerbating symptoms of an underlying condition so if it is persistent and regular speak to your GP and ask for checks on other bowel-related issues such as lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Whilst your symptoms may be minor or even unnoticeable in everyday life, running puts extra strain on your body which can make these more serious conditions apparent.
When to see your doctor
Diarrhoea can lead to dehydration due to the amount of fluid lost through bowel movements. Simple treatment with re-hydration solutions such as Dioralyte may be all you need but watch out for acute symptoms that need immediate attention.
• severe heart palpitations
• acute headache that comes on suddenly
• fainting or loss of consciousness
• bloody or black stool
• diarrhoea after running that lasts for 24 hours or more