If you're about to head out for a race or charity ride, one thing you don't want is to have to stop along the way for an emergency Number 2. Ideally you'd take care of that in the morning; you'd wake up, have breakfast, and use the bathroom—at least once, maybe twice—before getting on your bike.
But sometimes, your routine fails you. Maybe you're traveling and in a different time zone, maybe your diet's been a little off, or maybe you've just got a nervous stomach. But some mornings, you just can't go, no matter how much you know it's essential for a good ride.
So what do you do now? We looked at the latest research, and talked with Felice Schnoll-Sussman, MD, a gastroenterologist at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a New York City marathon finisher, to find out. Here's what science says about how to get yourself to go.
Sip and Sit
Many people swear by their morning cup of joe as the thing that gets their bowels moving—and although scientists aren't sure exactly why coffee works this way, at least one study has found that it does seem to induce "a desire to defecate." (It's unlikely that caffeine is responsible, because even decaf coffee had this effect.)
But Schnoll-Sussman says that any warm beverage can help stimulate a bowel movement, including a cup of tea or even hot water. "The warm liquid acts as a vasodilator," she says. "It widens blood vessels in the digestive system and helps increase blood flow and GI activity."
Schnoll-Sussman advises athletes to drink a hot beverage in the morning and then sit on the toilet for a while. "Just the act of sitting there for few minutes can bring on the urge to go, even if you don't feel like you have to right away."
Physical activity can bring on a bathroom break, which is one reason a warm-up can be so important. "Before you head out the door for a hard workout, I would suggest exercising lightly to help stimulate a bowel movement," Schnoll-Sussman says.
If you're trying to unload in the comfort of your own home or hotel room, try jogging up and down the stairs or doing some jumping jacks or dynamic stretches. Already at the race start? Warm up with some short efforts on the road or trainer while you're still near the porta potties.
Wake Up Earlier
"Make sure you're getting up early enough on race morning to go through your whole morning routine, including time for the bathroom," Schnoll-Sussman says. People traveling to different time zones, she adds, should try to stay as close to their body's natural schedule as they can.
If you're from New York and you're racing in Portland, that might mean getting up and having your breakfast on East-Coast time—even if it's a few hours before your race. On the other hand, if you're a Californian heading to Boston, you'll already be waking up several hours earlier than you're used to. "That's a little bit trickier," Schnoll-Sussman says, "but in this case it's also important to wake up with plenty of time to spare, so that your body has extra time to digest your breakfast and feel the urge to go."
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Try a Massage
A recent UCLA study suggests that putting gentle pressure on the perineum—the area between your genitals and anus—may help break up and soften stools for people who have been suffering from constipation.
While it's not yet a common treatment prescribed by doctors (and it wouldn't be her first line of advice for anyone who doesn't typically have pooping problems), Schnoll-Sussman says that it may be helpful for people with specific types of blockages or medical conditions. "It might be worth a try if you're in a bind," she says—and while it will probably be a bit awkward, it certainly can't hurt.
If you're particularly desperate, you might be tempted to use a glycerin suppository. But Schnoll-Sussman would not recommend this, especially if you've never tried one before.
"The time it takes for a suppository to take effect is very variable from person to person," she says. "It could work in 15 or 20 minutes, or it could take several hours—so if you do it race morning, you risk having to start the race before it works." If you really want to use one, Schnoll-Sussman would suggest using it the night before an event, or at least not trying it for the very first time on the morning of.
To Know for Next Time
Getting enough fiber is important in the days and weeks before an event for keeping digestion regular and preventing constipation. But on the day of your ride, consuming more fiber than usual can cause diarrhea, so don't eat (or drink) large amounts the morning of, especially if you're not used to it.
Staying hydrated is also key—especially if you're flying on a plane or otherwise traveling. "Constipation occurs when the stool is too dry to move through the body easily, so drinking plenty of water can always help move things along," Schnoll-Sussman says. Filling up on H20 the days before your big ride, and drinking that warm beverage first thing in the morning, is the best way to make sure you're able to go when you need to.