Why do I always need the toilet before a race?
Dr. Ollie Stoten, one of our excellent ultra distance running athletes and a polar explorer with a very keen medical mind turns his attention to that last hour before your race. Ollie offers a humorous, yet informative insight into your bodily functions in the last few minutes before you race; answering that all important question: "Why is the toilet queue so long before race start and why do I always need to go?"
I can see it now. You’re being very British and in a perfectly formed queue of people jostling their way forward step by step, anxiously trying to keep warm and do a little stretch here, little stretch there. You slowly edge your way forward, glancing at your watch, the light at the end of the tunnel nearly in sight. You’re eagerly watching for a space to open up. The next free portaloo (Americans read "Portapotty"). Because of course you’re desperate to have your pre-race poo. Maybe you don’t recognise this dialogue because your morning routine is so dialled that this never happens, but for most of us, the race to the portaloo is almost as big a deal as getting to the start line itself. So why is it that our guts play havoc with us on race morning?
Of course you’ve practiced your pre-race breakfast many times before, haven’t you? That aside, there are a few things that are going to nudge you towards the toilet. Firstly, eating a meal gets things moving on further down the pipe, it's called the gastrocolic reflex. When you’re racing, especially anything much more than a Saturday ParkRun and you’ll be keenly ensuring your pre-race meal has got all the energy you’ll be needing, and it may be a bigger meal than you usually eat before light training or going to work, stimulating a bigger stretch in the stomach and reflux further down the pipe.
Next, you may have had caffeine in the morning to wake you up and get you buzzing. Caffeine is a stimulant, and can essentially stimulate more peristalsis, contractions of your poop tube. Coffee seems to have an even greater effect than caffeine alone, probably due to some of its other ingredients.
Your nervous system sits in a delicate balance of sympathetic, I.e. fight or flight, and parasympathetic, i.e. rest and digest. The fight or flight ‘sympathetic’ state that you find yourself in can also have an influence on your guts, but the affect isn’t so clear cut and really puts you in a state less suited to digestion.
The other part of this is needing to pee constantly. This probably has more to do with how much you’ve drunk on the morning of the race in an attempt to be hydrated.
Whatever the physiological causes are, the key here is to practice your race breakfast in training so it's not new, eat well before the start (I like to eat 2-3 hours before the start to make sure I’ve digested properly), plan ahead and get to the portaloo early, with your own loo roll so you don’t get caught short!