How to Prevent Runner's Diarrhea

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Gastrointestinal problems, such as runner's diarrhea or the trots, can be an uncomfortable and embarrassing ailment that affects as many as 60 percent of all runners, notes Susan Paul, running coach and exercise physiologist. While the cause is not clear, many factors can contribute to this dilemma. Changes to your diet and your training, as well as taking over-the-counter medication, may help prevent runner's diarrhea and get you over the finish line in good form.

Contributing Factors and Theories

  • One hypothesis suggests that you experience a decreased blood flow to your gastrointestinal tract while running, notes Jackie Dikos, registered dietitian. During exercise, your blood diverts from your intestines to your muscles. Dikos also notes that running may stimulate the contraction of your colon muscles and increase gastric hormone production, which can speed up bowel movement. Another hypothesis, posed by family physician Dave Greenberg of Toronto’s St. Joseph’s Health Center, is that the up and down jostling of your intestines may also stimulate bowel movement. Physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist Edward Laskowski of the Mayo Clinic believes a change in your intestinal hormone secretion and pre-race jitters or anxiety may also lead to runner’s diarrhea.

Symptoms and Outcomes

  • Painful cramping, bloating, gas, flatulence, nausea and a feeling that you need to defecate may mean that runner's trots is imminent. While mild symptoms may not cause serious problems or interfere with your running, intense symptoms may lead to bloody diarrhea, dehydration, mineral and vitamin deficiencies, and poor performance, Dikos notes.

Adjust Your Diet

  • The smallest changes in your diet can help make your next run more enjoyable. At least 24 hours before your race, limit your intake of high-fiber foods, foods that produce gas -- bran, fruit, beans and salads -- and artificial sweeteners, which can be found in ice cream and sugar-free candies. The night before your race, avoid fatty foods such as pizza, fried foods, butter and peanut butter. On race day, avoid eating for two to three hours before running, limit your intake of dairy products, avoid caffeine, stay hydrated with electrolytes and avoid carbonated drinks before or while running. Be cautious with energy bars and gels, warns Greenberg, because these might cause diarrhea in some runners.

Adjust Your Training

  • If your runner’s diarrhea is persistent, consider reducing the distance and intensity of your training by as much as 25 percent over a two-week period. Once the symptoms improve, gradually work back to your normal pace and distance goals, recommends Dikos. Experiment with training at different times during the day, and keep a log to track your pre-run diet, mileage and when you experience the symptoms. Plan your training along routes with accessible restrooms so if you do feel the urge to go, you can find quick relief.

Talk with Your Doctor

  • If you’re unsuccessful in reducing or eliminating runner’s trots, consult your health care provider. Talk to him about any medications you take and if you experience any food allergies, and review your running log. Discuss the option of taking over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medications before you run and only use these with his approval. Let him know if you have traveled recently, because your diarrhea may be caused by an infection or a parasite. Be open to having tests to rule out conditions such as ulcers, gastritis or colitis.

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