Many female runners have a secret that they don’t like to talk about: they leak urine when they run. Stress incontinence can be a stressful and embarrassing issue to have, and can stop women from taking part in activities they enjoy.
New research shows that nearly 1 in 3 female runners say they leak urine while running. Jacqui Hawkins shares her story with us.
I’m about to tell you something that I have previously only shared with health professionals: I occasionally pee when I run.
OK, more than occasionally.
Why am I telling you this? Not because I want attention (at least, not down there). I’m telling you because Run Mummy Run is all about sharing running knowledge and supporting other women runners. I feel it really is time to, um, open the floodgates on this awkward and isolating problem.
Here is my story
After having my first baby four years ago, I was aching to get back into running. My little boy was four months old when, hopping with excitement, I pulled on my colourful new trainers and headed out for a gentle run. It was a beautiful summer’s day and the countryside was humming with life. But five minutes later I was walking home, in floods of angry tears. I was 32 and ‘incontinent’.
There are different types of incontinence, however if you are a new mum experiencing leaks while running, the most common culprit is stress incontinence.
Running creates extra pressure in your abdomen that pushes down on your waterworks. If the surrounding muscles aren’t strong enough to cope (say the sphincter that holds urine in is damaged, or there is weakness in the pelvic floor muscles that keep the bladder and urethra supported) then urine escapes. Ditto when you cough, sneeze or laugh.
For the next few months, whenever I let a drip slip, a bit of my love for running went with it
I stopped running with other people and I nearly gave up altogether. Then I plucked up the courage to see my GP, who referred me to a women’s health physio.
And that’s when the most amazing thing happened. I realised I wasn’t alone… there were thousands of portaloo queues worth of women like me. In fact, one new systematic review to be published in the International Urogynecology Journal suggests 31% of female runners (both with and without kids) experience leaking.
Here’s what I’ve learnt about stress incontinence while running – and what I wish every mum knew from the start
1) See an expert
A study by Thyssen et al surveyed 291 elite sportswomen and found 91 of them sometimes wore pads to cope with leaking, but only five had spoken to their doctor about it.
No wonder the rest of us put off getting help!
The problem is, if you stay silent you are missing out on a real chance to recover – not to mention putting your future down-there happiness at risk. Leaking while running is a sign of an underlying problem. Pushing on regardless can lead to prolapse, recurrent infections and worse incontinence, says runner and physiotherapist Jayne Nixon, from Manor Clinic Sevenoaks in Kent. ‘If you can’t walk fast or jump up and down and maintain your continence, you shouldn’t progress to running,’ she adds.
The good news is that simple pelvic floor exercises (aka ‘kegels’) are still the number one treatment. A women’s health physio will help you do them correctly and give you a gentle boot up the backside when you’ve forgotten. They will assess your lifestyle and your pelvic and core strength, do soft tissue release if necessary and offer a whole lot of reassurance to make you feel better about your lady parts again. They are experts at monitoring your recovery – so you’ll know exactly when you’re ready to run again.
2) Get squeezy
No matter what you read, there is no substitute for these pelvic floor exercises – but let’s face it, they suck. Literature suggests up to half of shell-shocked new mums don’t perform kegels daily, and most of us suspect the other half are lying.
That’s why every girl needs the NHS-backed Squeezy App: it takes the headache out of remembering to do your exercises, because your phone tricks you into thinking you’ve got a text message every time they are due. Irritating? Yes. Effective? Like you wouldn’t believe.
3) Mix up your routine
Normally run at night? Your pelvic floor muscles may be stronger in the morning – and skip the caffeine, which is notorious for irritating the bladder. Usually run on road? Trails are softer and the impact is smaller. Throw in a bike ride in place of a run or, better still, join a pilates class and strengthen your deep core, says Jayne – anything you can do to stay fit while giving your pelvic floor some breathing space is a big plus.
For me, what works is hill reps. When I run fast uphill, I get a mega cardio hit that makes me feel like a runner, but the impact is much less than sprinting on the flat (and I get to walk back down after).
4) Soak it up
Sometimes, I fantasise that someone has launched a range of stylishly absorbent knickers that you’d be happy to flash in a changing room. Yep, those are the things I dream about! Unfortunately, if you want to try these, you’ll have to order from abroad – try brands such as Fanny Pants or ModiBodi.
In the UK, pads such as TENA, or disposable underwear like Depend Active-Fit, get mixed reviews on forums – some women live by them, others find them uncomfortable. In which case…
5) Get back in black
Come on. Own up. Who else orders new running tights on the internet and then tip a glass of water over each pair to see if they’re worth keeping?
I do, and I have concluded that as lovely as patterned leggings and bright shorts are, nothing hides wetness quite like black tights in a technical fabric. If you’re still worried, wrap a jacket around your waist, or sign up for a night run like the Petzl Nightrunner races. In the dark, no one can see your secrets.
6) Go for support
Some women report that running with a tampon helps prevent leaking by lightly supporting their bladder (it won’t actually absorb the wee). However, many experts (including Jayne) advise against using tampons this way because of risks such as toxic shock, or masking the fact your problem is getting worse. If you give it a go and find it helps, ask your GP or women’s health physio for their advice.
7) Be proud
Conservative treatment with physiotherapy has a great success rate, says Jayne, but not every mum gets back to complete dryness. So what if you’ve been through physio and still have problems?
Surgery is one option. The other is living with it. Both have their pros and cons.
For me, several years and another baby later, I’m still running – and still sometimes leaking. My next goal is an ultramarathon. My ultimate goal, though, is to run for life, so physio will be part of my ultra training.
Wherever your own journey takes you, I hope you don’t travel in silence. You are a mum who is trying to be happy and healthy, and that’s worth shouting about.
About the Author:
Jacqui Hawkins is a health writer and trail runner. A member of the Run Mummy Run community since 2014, she’s currently taking a break from the muddy British hills to live in Australia, mostly because it means she doesn’t have to wash her running shoes as often
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