When you’re getting ready to head out on a run, you probably think about things like socks to keep your feet happy, fuel to keep your stomach happy, and the perfect playlist to keep your head happy. But there are other areas of your body—your breasts, uterus, and vagina—that also deserve some consideration.
Don’t blush. If you want to get the most out of every run, you need to think through how running affects your whole body. Here are five things every female runner should know about the relationship between running and her need-to-mention unmentionables.
1. Discharge Is Normal
If you get home from a run to find more discharge than usual in your shorts, don’t panic, says Dr Julie M. Levitt. While running doesn’t actually make your body produce more vaginal discharge, it does make you expel more. “When you exert yourself physically, you’re going to experience an increase in intra-abdominal pressure,” says Levitt. Plus, high-impact exercises like running work a lot like hitting a ketchup bottle on the end. And all of that pressure results in things coming out.
If you find midrun discharge uncomfortable, Levitt recommends wearing a thin panty liner in your underwear or running shorts’ built-in briefs. However, if you notice that the increase in discharge continues for days or weeks after a run, or it’s accompanied by redness or itching, it might be clue that you have a yeast or bacterial infection, or pH imbalance down there. Read on for more on that.
2. Running Can Increase Your Risk of Yeast Infections
As you probably already know, crotch sweat is a real thing for runners. That’s what happens when you work out hard with your thighs rubbing together 180 times per minute. If you don’t dry off from all of that sweat (and discharge) quickly, it’s easy for your natural vaginal yeast to grow and multiply, resulting in yeast infections, discomfort, and a whole lot of itching, says gynecologist Alyssa Dweck.
Decrease your risk by wearing a synthetic garment that is made of sweat-wicking, Dri-FIT, or anti-bacterial material, Levitt says. Also, keep in mind that cotton and organic fibers tend to trap more moisture than do synthetic ones. And, no matter what you wear on a run, Dweck recommends showering, or at least changing out of your sweaty threads as soon as you’ve cooled down.
3. Breasts (of Any Size) Can Throw Off Form
While large breasts can move more than five inches up and down in a given step, even small breasts can endure a huge amount of force when running, says sports physiotherapist Deirdre McGhee, Ph.D., a researcher with Breast Research Australia at the University of Wollongong. “Women need to think not just about the magnitude of movement, but also the frequency. If you are running for hours every week, your breasts are bouncing tens of thousands of times. All of that force adds up.”
And, often, it adds up to (often subconsciously) altering your running form to decrease any bounce. Maybe you shuffle your feet, hunch your shoulders, or minimize your arm swing, says McGhee. Either way, it hurts your form and could set you up for injuries. That’s in addition to any structural damage that could theoretically happen to the soft tissues that support your breasts.
“We spend a fortune on protecting our feet from shock,” McGhee says. “Why wouldn't we give our breasts the same respect?” Whatever your size, she recommends looking for a bra with high-support elements such as molded cups, underwires, padded straps, and multiple hooks. The goal is to find the best balance of comfort and support possible.
4. Urinary Leakage Is Possible
Running doesn’t cause uterine prolapse, but it can exacerbate symptoms in those already dealing with weakened pelvic floor muscles, Levitt says. Most often, that means women who have vaginally delivered children or who are in or nearing menopause. During pregnancy and childbirth, as well as perimenopause and menopause, hormonal changes can cause the pelvic floor muscles, which act as a sort of sling that holds and supports the uterus and other internal organs, to loosen.
When the uterus droops (or prolapses) it can press on the bladder and urethra to cause leakage. And, when you’re exercising, increasing your intra-abdominal pressure and bouncing up and down, you force your uterus to press into your bladder and urethra even harder. “The message here is to urinate before going out on a run, not to hold it, and take a bathroom break when you feel like you need it,” says Levitt. (A panty liner can help catch any leaks that still happen.)
Over the long term, however, strengthening your pelvic floor muscles can help to reduce urinary leakage when running. If incontinence begins to stand in the way of you and your love of running, you may also want to consider working with a physical therapist who specializes in pelvic floor strength and rehabilitation, she says.
5. Chafing Happens Below the Waistband
We’ve all heard of—or maybe even dealt with—breast and nipple chafing. But if you’ve also experienced vulvar chafing, don’t be embarrassed. It’s not just you. “A fair amount of women complain that their labia minora get chafed when running,” says Dweck. This is most common in women who already feel like their labia minora (often called the inner lips) are large or notice that they are visible when standing.
You can help reduce your chances of chafing and irritation by applying anti-chafing balms to the area both before and after running. You can also try wearing bottoms that are snug (but still comfortable). They’ll help keep your labia in place against your body so that they don’t rub against each other or your inner thighs during your runs, she says.