Monday, January 31, 2011

Eating on the Run

This post may be a little TMI for the squeamish, so those of you who don't want to hear about the intestinal consequences of my running should stop reading. I don't really blame you. I wouldn't write it if I hadn't promised to chronicle every aspect of this journey.

Earlier this month, on a weekend 8-miler, it hit me suddenly and surely that if I didn't find a toilet N-O-W, I'd be up a creek, Sh*t Creek to be exact. I wasn't on the backroads this time. I was just north of downtown Boulder, in a civilized and expensive neighborhood. In Boulder, the neighborhoods are pretty much all civilized and expensive, not the sorts of places an adult woman can squat by the side of the road without detection or the proper disgust, regardless of whether she has toilet paper on her person (which I didn't) and knows how to do her business in the great outdoors (which I do).

Fortunately, Ideal Market (owned by Whole Foods) was just down the street. So I picked up my speed, stopped the Garmin as I entered the parking lot and found my way to the bathroom, weaving among the leisurely Saturday shoppers in their yoga and cycling clothes. Clearly, they were all done with their workouts. I wondered if everyone (especially the guy who told me where to find the bathroom) could tell from the look on my face that I was in an emergency situation.

This has always been a problem for me, ever since I began training for that first marathon back in 1996. I clearly remember ducking into a port-o-john that some construction workers had kindly placed in my path during the dark hours of an early-morning long run. I also remember thinking, "Whoa, where did THAT come from?" (not the last time I was to have that thought). Part of the frustration is that I really don't know what precisely causes it: the time of the month? what I ate? the actual jostling of my body during a run? But I'm not alone. Lots of runners deal with it, to the point where it has a name: runner's trots.

Having this happen to me during a race is a great fear. So far it hasn't. But knowing it's out there, I've tried all kinds of things to manage it. Some of these things are:

1) Not eating much the night before a long run and not eating anything the morning before. This has such a negative impact on my energy, though, that it's really not an option any more.

2) Drinking more water and Nuun sports drink the day before and morning of, to keep things moving. This may help. Then again, I'm not sure. (By the way, here's a product plug: I love Nuun--most sports drinks taste like I imagine urine does, only with WAYYYY too much sugar thrown in, but Nuun tastes good and does its job without a lot of calories.)

3) Drinking coffee before long runs and races. This one does seem to work (by work I mean it clears the system out quickly, before I have to toe the line or start slogging), but it's problematic for me because I'm not a coffee drinker (in fact I've pretty much cut out all caffeine other than green tea) and I'm not inclined to go somewhere to get it before my long runs.

4) Eating only white carbs the day before a long run or race. Normally I try to eat whole-grain pasta, brown rice etc. But I let myself enjoy the white varieties when I know I'll soon be burning them off and that they are less likely to accelerate my touchy gut.

Ahead of my next target race, I'm going to try a new one: cutting out dairy the prior week. A lot of runners swear by this. I love yogurt and cheese too much to lose them forever. But ahead of a race....that I can manage.

One tip recently circulated on the Run Like a Mother Facebook page was to take Immodium or some other anti-diarrhea drug. But constipation would be even worse, in my opinion (and check out some of the other side effects--yuck!), so I have no plans to work this into my routine. I'd also rather not take the option (which some runners do) of not stopping my run for these kinds of episodes, of just letting nature take its course and, well, living with the results (though, yes, I will admit it: I will run with poop in my pants if I have to do it to qualify for Boston).

If anyone out there has any more advice for me on this, I'll entertain any and all suggestions. I was really surprised last Saturday that my fish and chips experience didn't "reappear" on my run. Maybe the meal was slightly constipating and that was a good thing??? Should I add fried food to my pre-run diet?

Something tells me that is NOT a good idea.


  1. Oh yiy, runner's trots. I am not chronically affected but once in a while they do come on. High fiber before a run for me, or recent increases in intensity.

    The only advice I can dole out is to make sure you're hydrated enough on long runs - dehydration can have a laxative effect, believe it or not. Don't eat sorbitol, and watch the fiber.

    I think GI issues during long runs have different root causes and therefore different treatments then run of the mill GI issues - so advice like the BRAT diet or no dairy don't hold much water, I think, if you're not already having problems. It's more like your body is getting stressed out, and getting jostled, and there might be a hormonal response thrown in there, so it's prevention - prevent undue stress (extra hydration), keep jostling potential low (no fiber), and don't add fuel to the fire (laxative-promoting chemicals like sorbitol, caffeine, alcohol, etc). But in the end, it might just be something that's par for the course. It's a regular runner's topic.

  2. I fear you're right (about it being par for the course). Tonight will be an interesting test too. I had to stay home w/ sick Will today, so I didn't run in the a.m. as usual. I'll be doing it tonight on the treadmill at the gym after a day of not-so-cautious eating. We'll see what happens. I wish this happened to me less frequently.

  3. Terzah, I used to suffer from this for a time, but switching my gels to Hammer products helped a lot. Once, i went on a run with Immodium and nearly passed out (dizzy). I've also used the chewable pepto-bismol (which seems to help if I know that its going to be a problem), but too much of that can have other unintended effects also (not good long term practice). Cutting out the dairy might work if you are truly sensitive to dairy / lactose, but it also might deplete your body of calcium just when you need it the most (cutting out dairy led to my first stress fracture). Definitely experiment, and try changing just one thing at a time, so you know what it was that did the trick for you. Hope it gets better! --Alex

  4. Alex, thanks. I haven't been eating anything during my long runs, but I think I have to start. I'll experiment with the Hammer products.