If you’ve ever run a race—whether it’s a 5K or a full marathon—you’re probably familiar with the feeling that you may lose control of your bowels at any moment or at least kind of feeling like you need to poop.
Fear not, runners. This is normal. “It definitely happens,” says Brock Cannon, a vegan ultra-endurance cyclist and author of the best-selling book The Switchback Approach. “And if it happens in a race or on a long trail run, my rule is I go. Trying to hold it is terrible. I have no shame about stopping at the Porta Potty or going in the woods—the time that I lose to stop is always made up for when I just clean out.”
So, why does it happen? And what does the sudden urge to poop on a run mean? Let’s dive in.
Your gut on running
When you increase your physical activity, your body experiences a surge of hormones and your gut motility increases, leading to that sudden “I gotta go” feeling. “It’s a dose-dependent relationship,” says Terry Wahls, author of The Wahls Protocol Cooking for Life: The Revolutionary Modern Paleo Plan to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions. “Mild to moderate physical activity levels stimulate gut motility through the autonomic nervous system and changes in the gut hormone secretions in response to exercise.”
While extreme increases in physical activity levels can result in digestive issues and even diarrhea, Dr. Vincent Pedre of Pedre Integrative Health believes regular running is a great way to keep your bowel movements consistent. “Leisure running is also going to result in a mechanical stimulation of the internal organs, including your gut, thus stimulating the enteric nervous system, a special network of nerve fibers that controls the contraction of the smooth muscles of the gut lining,” he explains. “This promotes peristalsis, which are rhythmic contractions of the bowel. This helps move stool down and will lead to the rectum, where your body gets the signal that your bowels need to empty.”
While running once in a while is better than nothing, Dr. Pedre cautions that if you want to rely on running to help you stay regular, you need to run regularly as well and make smart dietary choices.
“Running is reliable for most people, but it has to be done regularly to have a favorable effect,” he explains. “And it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach because there is not just one cause for constipation. Generally, a person who is incorporating running into their weekly schedule is also being more health-conscious, eating more fiber-rich greens, and hydrating with lots of water, all of which help promote healthy bowel movements.”
How to stop yourself from needing to poop on a run
Of course, mile seven of a race or even a leisurely run isn’t exact an ideal time to have to go to the bathroom. Stopping this from happening isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, but Cannon says learning what your body responds to is key.
“For me personally, I learned in my first ultra marathon that solid foods don’t do well with me. This is different in cycling, and I think it’s because when we’re running we have more upper body and gut jostling happening. That makes the stomach and the digestive process so much more sensitive,” he tells mbg. “It makes sense for many runners to either do a liquid calorie diet during races for this reason—simply less work that the stomach has to do!”
He also mentions that a pre-race poop occurs naturally for many people due to a combination of adrenaline and anxiety. Take advantage of that!
How other workouts can help
If running isn’t really your thing, worry not—it’s not the only workout that gets things moving down there, according to Dr. Pedre. “Aerobic exercise that has an abdominal impact will improve digestive regularity, but even walking after meals helps promote digestion and bowel contractions, to a milder extent,” he says. “And don’t forget about rebounding, which is basically like running on a very bouncy, soft surface that has a wide range of benefits, not just promoting regular bowel movements.”
And if you’re a yogi, we have good news for you: All those downward dogs and twists are good for your gut health as well. “The reason for this is because of what I talk about in my book, Happy Gut. For the most part, digestion is a relaxed activity,” Dr. Pedre notes. “Twisting poses like supine twist, which massages the internal organs and tones abdominal muscles, can also help relieve constipation.”
While we’ll admit that sprinting to a Porta Potty midrace isn’t exactly ideal, it’s good to know that running has such a positive impact on the bowels. Keep it up, runners.