“If you’re into running, then you have a shitting story,” Jessie, a 36-year-old playwright in L.A., tells me. As a marathon runner for the past six years, she definitely has a few tales. The worst occurred at a half-marathon at the Red Rocks outside of Santa Barbara, where she and the other runners camped the night before and had no Porta Potties. About halfway through the brutal run on a narrow path with little privacy, the emergency hit her.
Still, Jessie kept running, saying to herself over and over again that she could make it — until the finish line was in sight. Then she broke down. “I got maybe five feet off the course and just dropped my pants behind a tree,” she recalls, realizing in the moment that a bunch of her fellow runners were about to roll up on an unpleasant surprise. “One of them yelled out, ‘There’s a bear in the woods!’ Then I proceeded to finish the race.”
New runners taking to the streets during the COVID-19 pandemic are as at risk for a poop attack as veteran distance runners. Experts confirm that having to shit is just a healthy response to prolonged motion, similar to how constipation can be a common consequence of a sedentary lifestyle. “The movement of your body means that your colon moves too. It’s a normal, physiological response when you run or do any exercise that involves a lot of movement of the body,” explains Giuseppe Aragona, a general practitioner and medical advisor at Prescription Doctor. “There isn’t any limit or distance, it’s just a matter of how much you move during the run that will result in a more likely chance of needing to go to the toilet.”
Running coach Thomas Watson agrees that if you’re moving a lot, you’re asking your bowels to do the same. “For most of us, the simple reason that running makes you want to poop is that all that up-and-down motion can stimulate the colon and literally shake the poop through your internal organs,” says Watson, founder of Marathon Handbook.
It’s basically like shaking up a ketchup bottle. So what do we expect to happen?
Although neither rookie runners nor seasoned ones are immune to getting the, um, runs, the biggest difference is that novices are more likely to be caught off guard. “Everyone thinks it won’t happen to them,” Jessie says. “And the only way they learn is by going through it.”
Again, having to shit on a run can easily happen at mile one or mile two. But when people run for an hour or more, they’re even more prone to it because the body starts to prioritize blood flow to the main muscle groups, instead of organs like the colon. “This means your stomach and digestive system will be working less, which can cause some GI distress and make you want to poop,” Watson says. He recommends runners avoid bouncing too much — a common mistake among beginners — by keeping their chins parallel to the floor. “Less bouncing means less shaking the poop out of you,” he says.
Diet and schedule also play a big role. While running earlier in the day means you will have consumed less food, people tend to poop first thing in the morning. So if you run too early and skip that morning ritual, it may rudely show up en route. Likewise, Watson says it’s best to wait an hour after drinking coffee to hit the pavement, and save foods that are rich in fiber and fat until afterward.
Finally, new runners should exercise extra caution when it comes to sports nutrition snacks like gels, energy bars and sports drinks that are typically marketed to distance runners and crammed with far more sugar than people are used to. “When thrust upon your stomach, this can quickly cause GI issues,” Watson says. “Best to experiment first to figure out what your stomach can handle.”
The best precaution corona runners can take, though, is to not stray too far from home, especially at a time when there aren’t many public restrooms to seek refuge right now. “My biggest fear with quarantine is that I’ll be on a run and not be able to find a place to shit,” Jessie says. And when that happens, she’ll be faced with the shittiest choice of all — to run or walk to the nearest bathroom.
“That’s the big decision you have to make,” she explains. “If you run through it, you’re going to get there faster, but you’re also speeding up the process of shitting your pants.”