As a jogger, I strive to engage in my workouts outdoors as frequently as possible to simulate race-day conditions — and this is in spite of the fact that I’m a resident of New York City, which means that for half the year, the weather is extremely cold and the air is somewhat polluted. (By the way, the air quality at your fitness center may not be much better, either.) However, every time I do an intense run — let’s say, a distance of over 10 miles or a high-speed interval session — I return home coughing profusely.
Although the cough usually doesn’t persist, it does happen quite regularly. So, I did exactly what any curious person seeking information would do: I consulted Google, “Why do I cough after I run?” Surprisingly, there weren’t many scientifically-based responses available.
What I did discover, though, was a little-known condition called “track hack” or “track cough” among runners, “pursuiter’s cough” among cyclists, and even “hike hack” among outdoor enthusiasts. To gain a better understanding of this phenomenon of coughing after running and other forms of physical activity, I reached out to Raymond Casciari, M.D., a pulmonologist and the chief medical officer of St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California. He has been working with numerous Olympic athletes since 1978 and, unlike the majority of the internet, has encountered this type of cough before. Here, he explains what you need to know about coughing after running and exercising in general.
The Reason Behind Your Coughing After Running and Exercising
First and foremost, let’s start with an explanation of why your lungs are so sensitive in the first place. “There are only three parts of your body that come into contact with the external environment: your skin, your gastrointestinal tract, and your lungs. And out of the three, your lungs have the least protection,” explains Dr. Casciari. “Your lungs are naturally delicate — as they have to exchange oxygen through a thin membrane,” he further explains. This makes them even more susceptible to various conditions, including both your exercise routine and the external environment.
My cough, specifically, seems to be influenced by both of these factors, as it occurs after long runs, particularly when it’s chilly or the air is exceptionally dry. As it turns out, both of these situations are what Dr. Casciari refers to as bronchial irritants; therefore, “track hack” is nothing more than a cough triggered by irritants. Moreover, if you reside in an urban area, there are a greater number of pollutants in the air, resulting in more irritants. According to Dr. Casciari, I am probably inhaling “benzenes, unburned hydrocarbons, and ozone,” all of which contribute to a cough. Other irritants may include pollen, dust, bacteria, and allergens.
In such circumstances, your post-run coughs will most likely involve phlegm.
Your respiratory organs generate respiratory secretions to safeguard themselves,
and it envelops your bronchial surfaces, safeguarding them from aspects such as icy and arid atmosphere, specifies Dr. Casciari. “It’s somewhat akin to applying petroleum jelly all over your physique if you’re a swimmer: It functions as a barrier,” he affirms. Paraphrase: While your persistent cough is likely to be productive (similar to coughs that produce phlegm or mucus and are usually caused by viral illnesses and infections), there is no need for alarm.
What additionally makes track hack unique is that it’s often triggered when you cease breathing via your nostrils (due to the intense amount of effort you’re expending) and instead utilize your oral cavity. Unfortunately, your nostrils are a far superior air purifier compared to your mouth. “When the air reaches your lungs, ideally, it’s fully saturated with moisture and warmed to body temperature since the mucous membranes of your bronchial tubes are highly sensitive to frigid, arid air,” says Dr. Casciari. “Your nostrils are an exceptional humidifier and heater of the air, but when engaging in maximum capacity exercise, I understand that it is challenging to (breathe through your nostrils),” he observes.
Furthermore, breathing exclusively through your oral cavity can actually lead to coughing after jogging as well. “When you’re moving substantial quantities of air through the bronchial mucosa, you’re actually cooling them,” he explains — the exact opposite of the intended effect.
When Experiencing Coughing After Running Becomes a Concern
Not all coughs experienced after a run or workout are caused by exposure to irritants or breathing through your mouth. To determine the underlying cause of your coughing, conduct a comprehensive self-assessment of your current well-being, advises Dr. Casciari. Take a holistic look at how you’re faring overall, he suggests. For instance, if you have a fever, you may be suffering from a respiratory tract infection that’s provoking coughing after physical exertion.
Coughs induced by gastroesophageal reflux — when the contents of your stomach ascend into your esophagus and trigger a cough — could also be responsible, states Dr. Casciari. “The way you’d distinguish this from a runner’s cough, though, is to take note of when the cough occurs,” he asserts. “Runner’s cough will always manifest after exposure to running, whereas a cough stemming from GERD [gastroesophageal reflux disease] could occur at any time: in the middle of the night, while watching a movie, but also during and after running as well,” he elucidates.
Another crucial condition to rule out is exercise-induced asthma, which is distinct and more severe than the typical runner’s cough. Unlike track hack, exercise-induced asthma is a prolonged condition that persists well beyond the five or 10 minutes following a strenuous workout. Not only will the cough persist, but there will also be wheezing — something that generally does not occur with track hack — and an overall decrease in performance.
Unlike a simple cough, asthma causes the lungs to repeatedly spasm, narrowing and inflaming the airways and ultimately resulting in reduced airflow. And just because you did not have asthma as a child does not mean you cannot develop it later in life: “Some individuals are asymptomatic asthmatics,” explains Dr. Casciari. “They never realized they had asthma because the only thing that triggers the asthma is exposure to extreme conditions, including vigorous exercise,” he states.
Since there are numerous conditions that can provoke this kind of cough, it is advisable to consult your doctor to rule out any serious medical concerns — particularly if you are consistently experiencing coughing after running or exercising, as recommended by Dr.
Casciari. “Inquire within, ‘Might it be cardiovascular disease?’ Might you be experiencing an irregular heartbeat?” he remarks. Ensure to meticulously eradicate any of these medical apprehensions.
For exercise-induced asthma specifically, a physician can examine the condition using a device called a spirometer, which measures the quantity of air you can inhale and exhale, as stated by the Mayo Clinic. If you suspect that asthma is the cause of your coughing after running, consult your primary care doctor for an evaluation. If your symptoms persist, it is advisable to meet with a respiratory specialist or an exercise physiologist, according to Dr. Casciari.
How to Prevent Coughing After Running
The primary step in preventing post-run coughing is to abstain from taking Robitussin. “Using that will merely conceal the symptoms of runner’s cough,” says Dr. Casciari. Instead, try to avoid the irritants. For instance, if you run during the night, the air is likely to be more polluted. Test running in the morning to see if there is any difference. Likewise, if it is the cold temperatures that trigger your symptoms, consider running indoors. If you are on a treadmill, increase the incline to 1.0 as it will simulate outdoor conditions, which vary in terms of elevation.
Another recommendation is to create a warm environment around your mouth to imitate moist surroundings and warm your breath, according to Dr. Casciari. You can achieve this by using a scarf or purchasing a cold-weather specific balaclava or neck gaiter if you still prefer to exercise outdoors.
There is also research suggesting that consuming caffeine before a workout can decrease the likelihood of experiencing post-workout track hack and might be beneficial for exercise-induced asthma as well, as noted by Dr. Casciari. “Caffeine acts as a mild bronchodilator,” he explains, meaning it expands the bronchi and bronchioles in the lungs, facilitating easier breathing.
However, the most effective approach to reducing coughing after running is to start at the beginning: Keep a symptom journal that you can share with your physician, recommends Dr. Casciari. “Get a notebook and jot down specific details,” such as, “Firstly, when do the issues occur? Secondly, how long do they last? Thirdly, what exacerbates the symptoms? What alleviates them? By doing so, you will be equipped with information when you visit the doctor,” he explains.
As it turns out, I do not have exercise-induced asthma, but I tend to experience track hack.