A mid-race leaky bladder is by far one of the more embarrassing problems a runner has to deal with, and it’s pretty understandable why they don’t want to talk about it either. And yet, athletic incontinence affects a staggeringly large proportion of the general population, especially those who regularly participate in high-impact sports like gymnastics, basketball and running.
Though a variety of factors from stress to childbirth can cause incontinence, for runners, it essentially comes down to the strength of their core muscles. In particular, we’re referring to the pelvic floor – a supportive sling of muscles stretching from the tailbone at the back to the pubic bone in front. Collectively, this group of muscles supports the pelvic organs (bladder, bowel, womb) while standing, and also protects them from external damage.
As a high-impact standing exercise, running adds stress on your pelvic floor, particularly when your heel strikes the ground. The physical force that comes with the landing stretches the sling and its supporting structures, especially if they’re not strong enough to bear the impact. For regular runners, this means that over time the pelvic floor loses its elasticity, leading to frequent pee breaks in the middle of their runs.
And while it’s true that the numbers are higher among women, especially those who are running during pregnancy or after childbirth, pelvic floor disorders can affect teenagers, athletes, and yes, even men.
The good news, however, is that like the rest of your core muscles, you can strengthen your pelvic floor with some dedicated (and simple) exercises.
• Sit, stand or lie comfortably with your knees slightly apart.
• Slowly squeeze your pelvic floor muscles, like you’re trying to not pass wind and control your pee at the same time.
• In the first few attempts, hold and release the muscles immediately over 8-10 times. For the next round, hold in every squeeze for 8-10 seconds before releasing. It’s normal to feel a tightness in your abdominal muscles in the beginning.
• You’ll have to consciously avoid pulling in your stomach, tightening your buttocks or holding your breath to ensure that only your core pelvic floor muscles are being worked out. With a little practice, that won’t be so hard to achieve.
• Try to incorporate two sets each of quick and slow squeezes daily, with 8-10 repetitions for both.
Results aren’t going to be immediate, but those who follow the routine for over 2-3 months will notice a marked improvement in their bladder control. You do have to keep at it all your life though, or for as long as you wish to keep running, just like any other core muscle workout in the body.
Other precautions to take for pelvic floor strengthening include wearing well-cushioned footwear to minimize impact, mixing up your running surfaces, reducing stride length and speed, and maintaining your body weight. As always, if you see the problem worsening over time, do seek medical help without hesitation or embarrassment.