Huge thanks to Erica for writing this article on behalf of Lindsey, who herself is a sufferer of IBS and feels it is an important issue and needs to be discussed more openly.
I know, I know - not the most thrilling subject for an article! Thrilling no, relevant yes. Research by The IBS Network suggests that IBS affects 15% of the population, meaning that there could be around 83 runners in our Run to Be community dealing with this condition.
IBS is a disorder affecting the large intestine. The symptoms are numerous and varied, but they commonly include stomach cramps, bloating, gas, diarrhoea and constipation.
I’m sure you are all familiar with the awkward feeling of needing a wee during a run (note to self: must do more pelvic floor exercises), but how much more awkward would that feeling be if you need to do a poo? Not to mention painful and distressing. And running with stomach cramps isn’t on anyone’s list of 'Runs I Have Particularly Enjoyed'.
However, the good news is that having IBS needn’t prevent you from enjoying running.
The first step to relieving the symptoms of IBS is often to adopt a healthier lifestyle by changing diet, and by introducing regular exercise such as running.
However, running puts a certain amount of strain on the bowels which can cause increased discomfort; and research has shown that strenuous exercise can exacerbate the symptoms of IBS.
But let’s not get too gloomy here. I said strenuous exercise; in fact, much of the work I have read whilst researching this article (including a review published in the Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics journal which was, as you can imagine, riveting) uses terms like excessive, intense, over-exercising.
Much of this same research highlights the benefits of plenty of moderate exercise, and the NHS advises getting exercise as a way of relieving symptoms. It’s the excessive part that can potentially cause problems, not the exercise part.
Running has also been shown to help keep your digestive system working properly, which can be particularly beneficial to people who regularly suffer from constipation.
Dr Nick Read, medial advisor to The IBS Network, explains that: “running can relax the bowel… and induce a more regular bowel movement”.
Thanks Dr Read, you must enjoy your work!
As for diet, while people with IBS need to manage their intake of certain foods, there are also food groups that are particularly beneficial when exercising. For example, carbohydrates can help provide the energy needed for a run without exacerbating the symptoms of IBS.
Remember though, most runners living with IBS find it is wise to avoid eating any food, even carbs, for two hours before running.
Staying well hydrated is also important, especially before and after running and particularly if your symptoms include diarrhoea and constipation.
One of the main triggers of IBS is stress, and we are all aware of how helpful running can be in relieving stress and maintaining mental wellbeing.
During running, feel-good hormones are released which enhance mood and reduce stress. Research has shown that physical activity can reduce levels of stress and anxiety by 20-30%. Therefore, for people living with IBS, running can be a highly effective way of reducing a common IBS trigger.
So we have established that, although running can cause problems if done to excess, it can be a big part of the IBS solution. And if you are lucky enough to run regularly as part of a supportive, collaborative and friendly group such as Run To Be, having a chat, a moan and a laugh on the way, then you could be well on the way to controlling your IBS, rather than it controlling you!
Founder of Run To Be