black woman in pain on sofa

Needing to pee a lot, stinging when you wee, smelly urine, low tummy pain – cystitis is truly miserable. It’s something you want to avoid if you possibly can. If you’re a runner and get cystitis you might be wondering if running is to blame. Can running cause cystitis? And how what can you do stop cystitis affecting your running?

The word cystitis means inflammation of the bladder and while it can be caused by infection (a urinary tract infection), it can also be triggered by irritation. Cystitis is much more common in women than men because the urethra (tube from the bladder to the outside) is shorter and more exposed in women.

Running as a trigger for cystitis

Infection is usually caused by bacteria on the skin or from the anus, which find their way into the urethra. Irritation can be triggered by numerous things such as going swimming or having sex, you might have heard of ‘honeymoon cystitis’. There are several ways that running could be linked to cystitis:

  • Repetitive friction – If your knickers, shorts or tights repeatedly rub against your vulva they can irritate the urethral opening and cause stinging or burning when you pee.
  • Frequent washing – Runners tend to shower and bathe a lot. Strong, perfumed soaps and shower gels can irritate the delicate genital tissues. They also strip away healthy bacteria increasing your risk of infection.
  • Bladder slapping – Running can jolt your bladder and if the walls repeatedly slap against each other it can cause irritation of the bladder lining.
  • Dehydration – If you’re dehydrated, your urine is more concentrated and this can irritate the lining of the bladder and urethra.
  • Over training – It’s well known that your immune system can suffer if you’re training too much, too intensively and not prioritising rest. Lowered immunity can result in numerous infections and cystitis can be one of them.

Avoiding cystitis as a runner

Once you’ve had full blown cystitis you never want to have it again! That horrid sensation of being bursting for a wee when you’ve only just been. The burning and stinging when the tiniest drop of urine does dribble out. It really is grim. Cystitis is a common problem and yours may not be related to running at all but if you think there is a link then here are some ways you can avoid it:

  • Careful kit choice. Find what fits you best and doesn’t rub. You may choose to run commando and leave your knickers at home.
  • Wash your kit. Use a non-biological washing powder, try skipping the fabric softener and run an extra rinse cycle on your washing machine if you think detergents might be irritating your skin.
  • Don’t over wash. Shower rather than bathe and avoid perfumed products including feminine deodorants. Warm water alone is sufficient for cleaning your genitals, they are designed to self-clean.
  • Hydrate well. Make sure you drink plenty of fluids before, during and especially after your run. Steer clear of caffeinated drinks, they can irritate the bladder too.
  • Use a barrier cream. Blob on a bit of Vaseline or Sudocrem over your urethral opening to protect it before you run.
  • Don’t overtrain. Look after yourself. Build intensity and frequency gradually and prioritise rest and sleep.
  • Bonus tips for everyone – ALWAYS pee after sex and ALWAYS wipe from front to back!

When to see a doctor with cystitis

Cystitis can often be self-treated with lot of fluids, paracetamol for pain and rest. It usually gets better in a few days. You can try products which alter the pH of the urine and make it less acidic. These include cranberry juice and sachets of potassium citrate which you can get from the pharmacy. There’s some debate as to how effective they are but many people do seem to get relief.

Because cystitis can be caused by bacterial infection and can become more severe if it spreads up to your kidneys, you should see your GP if:

  • You aren’t getting better after three days of treating yourself
  • There is blood in your urine
  • You have a temperature
  • You have pain in your side or lower back
  • You feel unwell
  • You are pregnant
  • You are getting cystitis repeatedly
  • You are a man with cystitis
  • You don’t know if it’s actually cystitis

You can read more about cystitis, the symptoms, causes and when to seek help on the NHS website.

There’s a whole chapter on the urinary system for runners, including whether you should run with a UTI, how to collect a urine sample and whether running a marathon causes kidney damage, in my new book Run Well: Essential health questions and answers for runners, published by Bloomsbury and available from all good book sellers.

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