The 16 most embarrassing running questions answered

1/ Is it okay to have sex the night before a big race?

‘We runners are a superstitious bunch. We don’t want to do anything differently – even if it’s something we love,’ says obstetrician, gynaecologist and marathon runner Julia Levitt. ‘But physiologically, there’s no reason you shouldn’t have sex the night before a race.’

An article in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine called ‘Does Sex the Night Before Competition Decrease Performance?’ reviewed three studies on pre-race sex – and found no reason it would cause a decline in performance. Granted, the article notes that the average married couple only burns 25-50 calories each during sex – the equivalent of walking up two flights of stairs.

That’s not going to put a big dent in your glycogen reserves. However, if you go for a marathon romp – letting it cut into your sleep time – it can drain your energy levels. ‘Keep it short and sweet. Don’t participate in an endurance event before the endurance event,’ says Levitt.

What’s more, making it quick could prevent any next-day soreness or irritation, she says. As can keeping things gentle: deep, rough sex can cause the cervix to bleed. If the lining of your uterus is thin, you may experience some irritation and bleeding. Levitt says that even long training runs can cause spotting in some women. Remember that water-based lubricants can prevent irritations caused by friction.

2/ Does running affect your sex life?

Runners may have endurance on the road
 – but what about between the sheets? Do long workouts outside sap your energy for workouts in the bedroom? And how do elite runners manage to make babies and maintain a healthy sex life and still 
run 100 miles a week?

According to experts and runners, running can improve performance, 
and not just at the races. Many runners report that clocking the miles boosts their libido. ‘Being active is a potent aphrodisiac for both women and men,’ says Tina Penhollow, an associate professor in the Department of Exercise Science and Health Promotion at Florida Atlantic University, US.

What explains that happy connection? Confidence, for one thing. In a survey of runners by Brooks, 41 per cent said they feel frisky after a run, with 54 per cent being turned on by the energy boost it gave them, and 51 per cent saying running makes them feel strong and confident.

‘You tend to have a heightened libido when you’re proud of yourself,’ says Levitt. Running boosts self-esteem and research shows that people who exercise have a more positive body image and feel more desirable and confident in the bedroom. ‘Active people feel good in their bodies,’ says sex therapist Ian Kerner. ‘They’re able to translate that into sex, where they feel free, comfortable and uninhibited to a greater extent.’

Physical activity also makes many women
 more sensitive to touch, and men report better orgasms and greater levels of sexual satisfaction. And, of course, being in shape means you will have more stamina. ‘Certainly, exercise and training will benefit the exercise of sex,’ says Kerner.

3/ How can I ease the pain of chafing?

Skin-to-skin and skin-to-clothing rubbing can cause a rash. Moisture and salt on the body make it worse. Underarms, inner thighs, the bra line (women) and nipples (men) are vulnerable spots.

Wear moisture-wicking, seamless, label-less gear. Baggy T-shirts have excess material that can cause irritation; a too-snug sports bra can dig into skin. Apply Vaseline, sports lube, plasters or nipple plasters before you run. And be 
sure to moisturise after you shower. ‘Drier skin tends to chafe more,’ says Papadeas.

4/ Is it normal to dribble a little?

Urinary incontinence affects significant numbers of female runners, especially those who have given birth. Once the muscles that support the pelvic floor are weakened, anything from a cough to a fartlek session can cause a leak, says 
Dr Patty Kulpa, a sports gynaecologist. ‘Kegel exercises help strengthen the pelvic-wall floor and can cure most cases of incontinence,’ she says. To find these muscles, stop your stream mid-pee. Then, before you get out of bed in the morning, contract the muscles for 10 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. Repeat throughout the day.

5/ Is there any medical reason women shouldn’t run with a pad instead of a tampon during a marathon?

Three out of three doctors we asked agree: there’s no health hazard. After all, women ran and had periods long before you could buy tampons at the supermarket.

As for runners around you, you might expose them to a bit of blood, but it’s not like anyone makes it to mile 20 squeaky clean and perfectly hygienic. ‘Many runners lose control of their bowels or bladder during races and have to deal with bodily fluids,’ says Dr Holly Benjamin, director of primary care sports medicine at the University of Chicago, US.

The biggest downside will sound familiar to any runner – female or not. ‘If menstrual blood flow were to cause excess moistness in your underwear, it could increase the chances for chafing during the run,’ says Dr Elizabeth Stevenson-Gargiulo, an obstetrician and gynaecologist who blogs at Running Through Pregnancy. ‘As any marathoner knows, significant chafing could ruin a race.’

6/ Why am I so drenched in sweat?

Hyperhydrosis, also known as profuse sweating, occurs when the body’s normal cooling operations malfunction, says Dr William Roberts, medical director for the Twin Cities Marathon in Minnesota, US. This isn’t just a concern on summer runs. ‘If you’re running in cold weather, you’ll feel warmer if you stay dry,’ says Roberts. Ask you GP about prescription-strength antiperspirants containing aluminium chloride. Since heavy sweaters are prone to blistering, Roberts also advises applying antiperspirant to the feet. In extreme cases, some excessive sweaters seek medication or surgery. But beware: too little sweating during exercise could increase your risk of heat-related illness.

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7/ Why are my toenails black?

The most common cause among runners is bruising or bleeding under the nail from repetitive trauma – the top of your shoe striking the nail with each step, or the toe sliding into the front of your shoe. These nail injuries are generally not painful and will heal when your training volume or intensity decreases. Drilling a hole in the nail to ‘drain’ the blood is a bad idea.

Another cause of black toenails is a fungal infection, which can thicken the nail and sometimes turn it dark, almost black. This can be treated with oral antifungal medication, available on prescription from your GP. In this case the thickened nails can be painful to the touch, but generally don’t throb.

8/ Why does my running kit smell so bad?

According to research in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, synthetic exercise gear smelled worse than cotton gear a day after both had been worn during a sweaty workout. Belgian researchers got 26 people to do an hour-long spin-bike workout. The t-shirts they wore were incubated for 28 hours. Then the researchers analysed which bacteria were present, and an ‘odour panel’ assessed the t-shirts’ relative levels of atrocious stench.

‘The polyester t-shirts smelled significantly less pleasant and more intense compared with the cotton t-shirts,’ is how the researchers summarised the panel’s conclusions. One bacterium, micrococci, largely explained the difference. ‘They are known for their enzymatic potential to transform long-chain fatty acids, hormones and amino acids into smaller, volatile compounds, which have a typical bad odour,’ says researcher Chris Callewaert. During incubation, micrococci were able to grow much better on the synthetic t-shirts than the cotton.

Freshly secreted sweat has little odour; it’s only when micrococci and other bacteria get to work breaking down sweat’s long-chain fatty acids that the runner’s stink emerges.

In the unlikely scenario that you don’t want to wash your gear after a run, one way to reduce post-workout stink is to rinse sweat out before bacteria can get to work, and choose natural fabrics such as cotton.

9/ Should I pop my blisters?

‘This is probably the number-one race-day injury,’ says Paul Langer, a podiatrist and 26-time marathon runner. These fluid-filled bubbles are caused by friction, excessive moisture (sweaty feet, wet weather) or shoes that are too small, too big or laced too tightly.

‘Ignore blisters smaller than five millimetres, since they’re usually not painful,’ says dermatologist Gregory Papadeas. But go ahead and pop the big ones, especially if they hurt. With a sterile needle, prick the side of the blister and drain it. Don’t remove the blister ‘roof’ – cover it with an antibiotic ointment and, if needed, a bandage.

10/ There’s blood in my wee… should I panic?

When you run long, cells in the kidneys may leak and bleed,’ says Dr Lewis Maharam, medical director for the New York Road Runners, the organisation that runs the New York City Marathon. ‘The bladder can also suffer minor injury during a run.’ But there’s probably no need for concern; no serious damage is done. However, if you notice that your urine is still off-colour 48 hours after a run, see your doctor to rule out other issues.

11/ How can I get rid of my athlete’s foot?

This fungal infection results in dry, scaly, red skin between the toes, which can itch or burn.
 It can be pretty unsightly. It is, however, less contagious that many people think. Because 
the fungus thrives in warm, moist conditions, inside a runner’s socks is a perfect growing environment.

Wear light, moisture-wicking, synthetic (not cotton) socks, says sports podiatrist Stephen Pribut. After you run, change out of your soggy socks and shoes and slip into dry after-sport shoes before you go for coffee or run errands. Don’t stash your sweaty pair inside a dark gym bag or your car boot, where they can’t air out. You can also sprinkle antifungal powder on your feet before a run.

Apply an antifungal 
cream for at least
 four weeks, even if symptoms appear to have disappeared in half that time, to be sure the infection is gone. Soothe the itch 
by soaking your feet for 10 minutes in equal portions of lukewarm water and apple cider vinegar (which has antifungal properties). If the condition persists, see a dermatologist, who may prescribe oral antifungal medication.

12/ Can running make my breasts get smaller?

Breasts are composed of fat and fibrous tissues, says Michelle Norris, senior researcher in the Department of Sport and Exercise Science at Portsmouth University. ‘So if a person is training and eating well, and they’re reducing their overall body fat, it’s reasonable to think they could also decrease their breast size, because they’re decreasing the fat in their breasts. It’s more like decreasing overall body fat, than spot reduction.’

13/ Why do my testicles hurt after a long run?

Roughly one in seven men will experience some testicle pain caused by a varicocele – a kind of enlarged, malfunctioning vein in your scrotum, says Dr Tobias Köhler, a urologist and chief of male infertility at Southern Illinois University in the US. Varicoceles are genetic, and if you have one, the muscle clenching involved in running can cause blood flow to back up and enlarge the varicocele, which leads to extra pain.

Some men also experience pain that defies explanation. ‘I have men come in worried about cancer, but a lot of the time their pain just doesn’t have an identifiable cause,’ Köhler says. But even in those unexplained cases, running can heighten your agony, he adds. Wearing compression shorts, or normal running shorts with a liner, can help keep your ‘boys’ from jostling, he adds.

14/ Why do I need to poo mid-run?

The repeated motion of running can irritate the intestines. And when blood flow needed for digestion is diverted to the legs to keep you moving along in a straight line at a reasonable speed, stomach cramping can be the result. Gastroenterologist Dr David Bjorkman, dean of the University of Utah School of Medicine, US, and a veteran of more than 60 marathons, recommends eating 
at least two hours before a run. Caffeine can speed the movement
 of waste through your system,
 and artificial sweeteners, which
 are often found in energy bars, can cause gastrointestinal (GI) distress. Although it’s not terribly wise to
 have a bran muffin before a race,
 Dr Bjorkman says you should incorporate more fibre in your general diet (work up to 20g a day).

‘Adding fibre can make you more regular,’ he says. ‘You can get your system to operate like clockwork, so that you can reliably go to the bathroom before a run.’ If all else fails, he suggests taking an over-the-counter anti-diarrhoeal medication before running.

15/ Why can’t I stop farting during my runs?

The causes of run-induced flatulence are multifaceted, says Dr Niket Sonpal, assistant clinical professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City. The first cause is all that heavy breathing. ‘This excess 
air gets trapped in the digestive tract, only to 
be released through the anus,’ he says.

The second issue is that ‘aerobic exercise helps move food through the digestive process faster, promoting the release of gases caught in the digestive tract,’ says Sonpal. While you can’t totally eliminate your risk of unscheduled ‘air time’ while out with your running buddies, there are a few things you can do to make it less likely. ‘Stay away from gas-producing foods before a run, such as wheat, corn, lentils and potatoes, and vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower,’ says Sonpal. On that same note, avoid carbonated water. During your run, focus on your breathing – try to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. ‘That way you swallow less air and, in turn, have less wind for the trumpet to play,’ says Sonpal.

Ultimately, remember that wind is simply a fact of life – no track, treadmill 
or yoga class is immune. ‘Trying to hold it in can lead to distension, bloating and cramps,’ says Sonpal. ‘In the words of the lovely Shrek...better out than in!’

16/ Will running damage my breasts?

Here’s what scientists know – and what runners should, too – about effective breast care.

a/ The body is not kind to the breasts. ‘They can be very heavy,’ says Dr Andrea Cheville, physical medicine and rehabilitation researcher, and director of the Cancer Rehabilitation Programme at Mayo Clinic in the US. ‘There’s not much to keep them stable and immobilised.’ Just your skin and a few ligaments.

‘You can run and your insides will not jiggle around, because we have a strong, fibrous envelope. But that’s not true of the breasts. They have essentially no support. And at the same time they have pain receptors. And when the limited support elements are stretched, that hurts.’

b/ They move, a lot. Norris studies breast movement and tests breast support products in the University of Portsmouth’s lab. To do so, she and her colleagues get women to run on a treadmill bare-chested, and then in low- or high-support bras. They use 3D motion capture to look at the range of movement of the breasts.

Breasts move in a figure-of-eight pattern. Not just up and down – that vertical movement is what most runners think of – but also side to side, and backwards and forwards. ‘The breast is just a mass of tissue, not a muscle,’ Norris says. ‘It’s not a rigid structure. It can move in all three dimensions when we run.’

c/ A good bra is a vital. With all that movement, runners need support.