From amateur enthusiasts to performance athletes, gastrointestinal complaints are perhaps the single most common cause of underperformance in endurance sports. But why, and what can you do about it?
According to research by Gatorade Sports Science Institute, up to 93% of long distance athletes experience gastrointestinal distress during exercise1. Symptoms vary in severity, but may include bloating, flatulence, vomiting, constipation or diarrhoea. Sporting performance can be seriously impaired; Bill Rodgers, a 1970’s marathon legend once said, “More marathons are won or lost in the portable toilets than at the dinner table.”
Huge numbers of athletes experience this problem, but few openly discuss it. So, we’ve decided to explore the topic for you: read on to find out more about the causes of runner’s trots and things you can do to prevent it.
What causes runner’s trots?
1. Splanchnic Hypoperfusion (reduced blood flow to your intestines)
Sounds complicated, but Splanchnic hypoperfusion simply means reduced blood flow: when you exercise, the working muscles in your arms and legs need a constant supply of oxygen rich blood. Blood also rushes to the surface of your skin to help regulate temperature.
To meet this demand, blood flow is diverted away from the gut. As a result, digestion slows and the absorption of fluids, electrolytes and nutrients is reduced causing abdominal distress and negatively impacting athletic performance2.
2. Increased Motility (movement stimulates the digestive process)
Pounding the pavements literally jostles your insides as your body moves up and down for extended periods of time. This movement stimulates peristalsis, the wave-like contractions used to move food through the digestive tract.
The increase in movement means the contents of the digestive systems gets pushed through towards the rectum at a much faster pace. This results in the urge to have a bowel movement – not ideal if you’re halfway through a run!
3. Anxiety Before a Race (your state of mind directly affects your digestive health)
The gut and the brain directly communicate with each other via the vagus nerve in the nervous system. So, when you’re brain gets nervous before a race, your gut responds. But how?
Firstly, stress hormones are released in the brain, activating the ‘fight or flight response’. Your body is getting ready for an attack!
In response, your gut prepares to fight infection or trauma by increasing the production of inflammatory cells. This causes an imbalance in the gut environment, disrupting digestion and causing GI distress.
4. Dehydration (not enough water in the digestive system to support healthy function)
Dehydration is one of the most common causes of constipation and is often experienced post exercise. Water is vital to the digestive system; it helps keep waste moving through at a healthy rate.
To restore water levels, the large intestine soaks up water from food, drying it out. This leads to hard, dry stools which are difficult to pass.
5. Diet and Routine (what you eat and when you eat it impacts your digestive health)
High fat, high protein foods remain in your gastrointestinal tract for longer, increasing the likelihood that you will have undigested food in your stomach when you start to run.
Carbohydrates require extra fluid to digest, so fluid accumulates in the gut, leading to loose stools and diarrhoea.
Artificial sweeteners found in many energy drinks and gels contain sugar alcohols which pull fluid into the digestive tract during digestion. This can also result in loose stools and diarrhoea.
Coffee can stimulate the distal colon which helps push waste out of the body.
It is best to experiment with new products such as protein, energy gels and carbo-loading during training periods rather than on the day of a race. Monitor your symptoms alongside your food and drink intake:
How can I prevent runner’s trots?
1. Maintain Hydration: drink approximately 1 litre of water per hour of exercise to replace the water you lose through sweat.
2. Stick to your routine: don’t change anything on the day of a race
3. Monitor your symptoms: experiment with new products during training sessions
4. Digest your food: allow at least 3 hours to properly digest a large meal and allow 1-2 hours to digest a small snack
5. Balance your gut environment: take prebiotic supplements to encourage a balanced and healthy gut environment
6. Mentally prepare for races: try to relax and minimise stress prior to a race
7. Plan your route to include bathrooms! If you know where you can stop, you’ll feel less anxious and you’ll be able to just get out there and enjoy your run!