Embarrassing Running Problems

Embarrassing Running Problems

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If you've ever had diarrhea, sore nipples, rashes, or other embarrassing issues while running, you're not alone. Most runners have had to deal with their share of embarrassing running-related problems. But they're often too embarrassed to ask their running friends, coach, or doctor what to do.

Over the years, I've personally experienced and heard stories about all kinds of embarrassing situations. So here are answers to questions about the most common embarrassing and sensitive topics for runners.

Embarrassing Running Problem #1: Black or Lost Toenails

Some runners, especially those training for long-distance events, can suffer from black toenails. It's actually easy to prevent this unsightly problem.

Symptoms: First, the toenail appears blackened (caused by bruising under the nail), and then it eventually falls off.

Causes: Black toenails are caused by constant rubbing of your toe against the front of your shoe. A blood blister forms under the nail, and the blister can't breathe, so it takes a lot longer to heal. Marathoners or runners who do a lot of downhill running are the most likely candidates for black toenails. You're more likely to get black toenails if you run in warmer weather because your feet swell more when it's hot.

Prevention: Make sure that you're wearing the correct sneaker size (at least 1/2 size bigger than your street size; you should have plenty of room in the toebox), trim your toenails, and keep your feet as dry as possible during runs. It helps to wear good wicking socks, not cotton ones.

Treatment: It's best to leave a black toenail alone, as long as the pain is manageable. The pain is usually worst on the first day and then lessens each day after. The damaged part of the nail is gradually pushed off, and a new nail will replace it. Don't force the old nail off -- it will fall off on its own. If you notice redness and infection, see a doctor.

Embarrassing Running Problem #2: Leaky Bladder

Female runners sometimes have problems with urinary incontinence, especially if they've given birth. Men can leak urine too, but the problem is more common in women.

Symptoms: You're running and you suddenly realize your running shorts are wet with urine. The leakage can be just a trickle or a stream.

Causes: When your pelvic and sphincter muscles are strong, they can handle the extra pressure from a cough, sneeze, exercise, or laugh. But when those muscles become stretched and weak – which often happens because of pregnancy and childbirth -- that sudden pressure can push urine out of the bladder. The muscles can also weaken with age, although that's not true for everyone.

Treatment: An effective treatment for incontinence, Kegel exercises help strengthen the pelvic floor muscles and don't require any equipment. To locate the right muscles, try stopping your urine flow without using your stomach, leg or butt muscles. When you're able to slow or stop the stream of urine, you've located the right muscles. Contract the muscles for 10 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, and repeat 10 times. Try to do the pattern three to four times a day. After about six to eight weeks, you should notice that you have fewer leaks and more bladder control.

Extra body weight also puts extra pressure on your bladder. By losing weight, you may be able to relieve some of that pressure and regain your bladder control.

If you've tried these strategies and you're still having problems with incontinence, talk to your doctor. Severe cases may require surgery.

Embarrassing Running Problem #3: Runner's Trots (Diarrhea)

Running is good for maintaining regular bowel movements but, of course, sometimes it happens at inopportune moments. Many runners experience bouts of diarrhea and GI distress during and after running, so if you've ever dealt with it, you're definitely not alone.

Symptoms: You may experience cramping, flatulence, diarrhea during or after running.

Causes: The cause may be dietary in nature or due to lack of blood flow during digestion (since the blood is being pulled to your muscles). You may also have irritable bowel syndrome or lactose intolerance, the effects of which are enhanced by exercise. Dehydration and low electrolyte levels may also lead to diarrhea.

Prevention: This issue is more common in beginner runners, so it may disappear as you become more fit. Try these strategies and see if they make a difference:

  • Avoid high-fiber foods (fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains) and coffee/tea before working out. Try to drink 64 oz of water every day. You'll know you're well-hydrated if your urine is a light yellow color.
  • Consume a sports drink (like Gatorade) during long runs to maintain electrolyte levels.
  • Choose foods that are naturally constipating, such as bananas, plain bagels, rice, oatmeal and pasta.
  • Make sure you don't eat at least two hours before running, so you give your body plenty of time to digest.
  • Try to keep track of what you eat before your runs, so you can figure out possible triggers. For example, some people find that dairy products cause diarrhea.
  • Plan your long runs along routes where you know bathrooms are accessible. If you face this problem on race day, don't worry. Most races, especially longer ones such as marathons, offer plenty of port-a-johns at the start and along the race course. In most cases, you can find them near the water stops.
  • If you try different tactics and nothing seems to work, you may want to consider a medical check-up for irritable bowel syndrome.

Embarrassing Running Problem #4: Acne on Face, Chest, and Back

Acne on the upper back, chest, and upper arms is a common issue for runners, especially women. Often, the pimples are more prevalent where clothing is covering skin, such as under your sports bra.

Causes: The cause is pore-clogging sweat combined with friction from rubbing clothes. If you're wearing make-up or sunscreen, that can exacerbate the problem.

Prevention: To prevent exercise-induced acne, you should change out of sweaty exercise clothes after running, and shower as soon as possible. Make sure you cleanse acne-prone areas thoroughly. You can use a soap that's designed for acne. Try to avoid wearing make-up during exercise. Opt for an oil-free sunscreen that's formulated for the face and neck. Choose a sunscreen gel (instead of a cream-based lotion) for the rest of your body.

More: Skin-Care Tips for Acne-Prone Skin

Embarrassing Running Problem #5: Itchy Legs

When you start running, you feel an itchy sensation that is sometimes so bad, you have to stop running. It most often occurs if you run after a long period of inactivity.

If the itching is accompanied by a rash, it might be a different condition, such as exercise-induced anaphylaxis (see Embarrassing Running Problem #6).

Causes: The most common cause of itchy legs is actually what's happening inside the skin, not on it. When we exercise, the millions of tiny capillaries and arteries inside our muscles expand rapidly because of the demand for more blood. If we're fit, these capillaries remain open allowing maximum blood passage, but, when unfit and inactive, they tend to collapse, allowing only minimal blood passage (which, by the way, is fine for a sedentary person). The expansion of the capillaries causes adjacent nerves to send impulses to the brain, which then reads the sensation as an itch.

Prevention: The problem should go away once you have increased your fitness level.

Dry skin is also a common cause of itchiness, so if you think that's your issue, try using a moisturizing oil or lotion, especially after your bath or shower. You may also want to change your laundry detergent to one that contains no perfumes or dyes.

Embarrassing Running Problem #6: Rashes or Hives

Some runners break out in red, itchy rashes or hives during their runs. Their symptoms may be the result of one of these conditions:

Hives Cause #1: Exercise-Induced Anaphylaxis

Symptoms: In addition to hives, other symptoms of exercise-induced anaphylaxis (EIA) include: breathing difficulties (shortness of breath, wheezing), circulatory problems (lightheadedness, low blood pressure) and gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea, vomiting and diarrhea).

Cause: Many people who suffer from EIA have another trigger that, along with exercise, causes the symptoms. These triggers include various medications; foods such as seafood, nuts, or dairy; alcohol; and cold weather. Typically, symptoms are not triggered by just exercise or the specific trigger alone.

Prevention/Treatment: You should stop exercising immediately. You may need to use an epinephrine injection pen to stop the symptoms, as you would do for an anaphylaxis reaction caused by a food or insect sting allergy.

People with EIA should avoid: cold weather exercise, exercise on an empty stomach, and eating any food triggers for at least 24 hours before exercise. You should always run with someone who knows about your condition. Talk to your medical care professional for advice and tests so you know what triggers to avoid.

Hives Cause #2: Cholinergic Urticaria

Symptoms: Itching, swelling, and small hives on the skin.

Cause: This type of reaction is caused by the increase in body temperature that occurs while running, most often during hot weather.

Prevention/Treatment: Medicines, such as antihistamines, can be taken to help prevent symptoms. You should also avoid running on hot or humid days and reduce your workout intensity. Stop exercising at the first sign of itchy skin or hives.

Embarrassing Running Problem #7: Sore or Bloody Nipples

Some runners, usually men, get chaffed or bleeding nipples, which can be extremely painful.

Causes: When men run, their nipples are constantly rubbing against their shirt. Over the course of a run (especially a long one), this sensitive area can be rubbed to the point of bleeding. Because women wear tight-fitting sports bras, this shouldn't be an issue for them.

Prevention: Some men learn the hard way how painful it can be, but it's actually very easy to avoid that problem. Generously apply a lubricant like Vaseline or BodyGlide to the nipple area before a long run and you should be fine. Some men will also wear products such as Nip Guards or Band-aids to protect the nipples. Also, for longer runs, make sure that you wear a synthetic-material (Dri-Fit, not cotton) shirt closest to your body. Cotton shirts will cause chafing. Women should make sure their sports bras are not cotton. For longer runs, both men and women should also apply Body Glide or Vaseline to any areas where there may be rubbing (inner thighs, under arms) to avoid chafing.

Embarrassing Running Problem #8: Excessive Sweating

Some runners experience excessive sweating during their runs, especially on the hands, feet, and armpits.

Cause: Sweating helps the body stay cool, so it's normal for runners to sweat when they run. But hyperhidrosis, or profuse sweating, occurs when the body's normal cooling operations malfunction. Those with hyperhidrosis appear to have overactive sweat glands.

Prevention: Try using a clinical-strength antiperspirant. You don't need a prescription for it -– a product such as Secret Clinical Strength Waterproof Deodorant is available over-the-counter at drugstores. Apply it before you go to bed, so your body can absorb it overnight, and then reapply before your run. You may also want to use the antiperspirant on your feet, since heavy sweaters are prone to foot blisters. In extreme cases, medication or surgery may be necessary.

If you're worried about your clothes and shoes getting stinky from all the sweat, check out these articles for some tips:

Embarrassing Running Problem #9: Uncomfortable Underwear

While some runners love to talk about their running clothes, they become a little more reserved when it comes to undergarments and—as a result—suffer in silence wearing uncomfortable underwear. The "synthetic material/no cotton" rule also applies to underwear. Make sure you wear tight-fitting, non-cotton underwear so any moisture is wicked away and you avoid chafing. Most uncomfortable underwear issues can be avoided by following that rule.

Some running shorts do have "built-in" underwear. It is perfectly fine to wear just these shorts—you don't have to wear another pair of underwear underneath them. Some runners, especially men, prefer to wear spandex compression shorts under their shorts instead of underwear. Some female runners I know swear by running thongs and claim that they're extremely comfortable. It's really a matter of personal preference, so you just have to figure out what works for you.

Also see:

7 Things No One Tells You About Running

Embarrassing Running Problem #10: Menstrual Concerns

Many women get concerned that they won't be able to run when dealing with the bloating, cramping, and bleeding that come with their monthly period. They get particularly nervous when they realize that they may have their period for a big upcoming race.

The good news is that menstruation should have limited impact on your performance. In fact, women have run well and even set records during all phases of the menstrual cycle.

Don't be afraid to run when you're menstruating. You may find that running can actually improve your mood and alleviate physical symptoms before and during your period. If you're training for a big race, it's recommended that you plan to run when you have your period so you can see how it feels. It will alleviate some of the fear and nervousness if you have it for your race. Tampons are recommended over pads for comfort and to avoid chafing. Just make sure you carry an extra one on your long runs during that time of the month.

Some female athletes may develop menstrual irregularities, especially if they have very low body fat, heavy training, and poor nutrition. They may stop menstruating—a condition known as athletic amenorrhea, which can lead to other issues such as infertility and stress fractures. You should discuss any menstrual irregularities with your health care provider.

Embarrassing Running Problem #11: Hemorrhoids

Hemorrhoids, or an enlargement of the anal vein, can happen to runners, especially those who are pregnant, have recently given birth, or who had digestive issues such as runner's trots (also fairly common among runners). The symptoms of hemorrhoids can range from midly irritating (itching) to concerning (bleeding). Running with hemorrhoids can be painful and may actually make your condition worse.

So if you're dealing with hemorrhoids, your best best is to check in with your health care professional before you run again. He or she will most likely recommend an over-the-counter topical cream or ointment to give you some relief.

Embarrassing Problem #12: Passing Gas While Running

If you've been running long enough, you've undoubtedly farted at some point during a run. If you were lucky, you were all alone and no one heard or smelled the evidence. But if you've passed gas during a group run or race, you know that it can be just a bit embarrassing.

The causes of passing gas while running are similar to that of runner's trots, so you can follow some of the same advice to prevent it.  Here are some things to try:

  • Cut back on foods that cause excessive gas, especially in the 2-3 hours before your run. The list includes sugar-rich and high-fiber foods such as fruits, vegetables, bran, and beans.
  • Everyone swallows small amounts of air while eating or drinking. The faster you eat or drink, the more air you'll swallow. So don't rush through your meals. This is also good advice to prevent overeating.
  • Drink plenty of water and make sure you're staying well-hydrated, since water is an essential part of the digestion process.
  • If excessive gas continues to be an issue, consult your health care professional to determine whether there is a medical reason for it.

Embarrassing Problem #13: Getting Lost During a Run

Some people see getting lost during a run as an adventure, but for some runners it can be embarrassing to have to admit to people that they ran way more than they planned because they took a wrong turn. It can also be dangerous if you’re lost and short on water or food, or if you’re headed into dangerous conditions (cold weather, darkness, etc.)

Here are some precautions to take to stay safe and avoid getting lost:

  • Share your plan. If you’re trying a new route, make sure that you tell someone where you’re going and what time you should be back. (This is actually good practice even if you’re running your usual routes.)  
  • Be prepared. Bring your smartphone so that you can look at a map to determine where you are or call someone if you have to. Stash some cash in your shorts in case you need to pay for a cab. Even if you think you won’t need fluids or food, it’s always good to run with them in case you’re out for longer than you expect.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings.  This is another good general running safety rule, but it’s especially important if you’re worried about getting lost. As you’re running, take notice of what you’re passing and try to remember landmarks.  This is very helpful if you’re doing an out-and-back course, so you know what to look for on the way back.
  • Know the route. If you’re running with a group, don’t assume that you’ll be able to stay with the pack the entire time. Sometimes the group starts breaking up, as people speed up or slow down and, before you know it, you’re running alone. Make sure you’re familiar with the route before you start the run.

    If the route seems complicated, carry the directions with you (either in your phone or on paper), so you can refer to them if you get lost. If others at your pace are also concerned about running alone, you can agree to stay together, even if one needs to slow down or use the bathroom.


ACE Personal Trainer Manual: The Ultimate Resource for Fitness Professionals, 3rd edition. American Council on Exercise. 2003

Hives and Exercise: What It Means and What to DoAmerican Family Physician, October 15, 2001

Hyperhidrosis. U.S National Library of Medicine and the NIH.

Hosey, Robert, M.D., et. al., "Exercise-Induced Anaphylaxis and Urticaria" American Family Physician, October 15, 2001

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, NIH. "What I Need to Know About Bladder Control for Women" 

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