When you embark on your first high-speed run in a long time, you may anticipate experiencing a few less-than-pleasant physical side effects: Droplets of perspiration descending into your eyes, trembling leg muscles, or perhaps even a sensation that you cannot seize your breath. One that is likely not included in the inventory? Truly scratchy legs.
This occurrence is recognized as runner’s itch, and it is actually quite prevalent. In this instance, a physical therapist dissects why you urgently require scratching during a run, as well as the measures you can take to treat and prevent runner’s itch.
Causes of Runner’s Itch
In spite of the name, runner’s itch does not solely manifest while you are running—any form of strenuous exercise can initiate the reaction, according to Rena Eleázar, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a board-certified specialist in sports physical therapy and the co-founder of Match Fit Performance in New York City. During such activities, your functioning muscles necessitate more oxygen, so your body expands your blood vessels to enhance blood flow to them, studies reveal. This dilation causes your capillaries and arteries to also enlarge, and consequently, they may stimulate specific nerve endings in your body, which can induce the sensation commonly known as runner’s itch, explains Eleázar.
The release of histamine might also contribute to runner’s itch. Although this biochemical is typically discharged into the bloodstream in response to allergens, research suggests that it may also be released during aerobic exercise, says Eleázar. “When you’re exercising, you activate your sympathetic nervous system, and so occasionally histamine will be discharged to prevent fatigue,” she elucidates. This histamine also instigates the expansion of blood vessels, according to a study published in Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, which is why you may feel incredibly itchy after a session of sprints, states Eleázar.
Augmenting the predicament are skin sensitivities, says Eleázar. Allergies to detergents and irritation caused by sweat droplets on the skin or damp clothing saturated with sweat can all induce itching and, if you are already grappling with runner’s itch, can exacerbate your symptoms, she clarifies.
Symptoms of Runner’s Itch
Runner’s itch typically manifests on the lower abdomen and legs, an area that becomes flooded with blood when you are sprinting, although it can happen anywhere on the body, says Eleázar.
In addition to pruritus, you might also encounter erythema or a sensation of heat in the impacted regions, but these indications will slowly diminish once your circulation resumes its normal state, she suggests. Presently, there are no acknowledged enduring health hazards linked to runner’s pruritus, she appends.
Who Is at Risk for Developing Jogger’s Irritation
If you attempt a treadmill sprint workout or participate in a HIIT class, you’re not automatically destined to experience jogger’s irritation, says Eleázar. “It doesn’t occur to everyone,” she adds. However, if your fitness routine has been neglected, you have a higher vulnerability. “It is usually observed when someone has been more inactive,” says Eleázar. “Your body is not accustomed to this surge of blood circulation and has never experienced the need to widen the capillaries and allow as much blood into the muscles as with something as vigorous as running. It’s almost like a sudden response to your body.” Individuals who take up running for the first time and embark on their initial jog, for instance, may encounter that irresistible urge to scratch, and the same applies to those who take a long break from running and then push themselves too hard upon their return, she says.
How to Manage Jogger’s Irritation
If you are bothered by an intense itchy sensation during your run, your best option to alleviate the reaction is by reducing the intensity of your workout (consider walking instead of sprinting) or ceasing it altogether, says Eleázar. “The cause of the itching is the necessity to increase blood flow to the area, so if you diminish the need for excessive blood flow to your lower limbs and potentially to your arms, it will typically subside,” she explains. If you still have the urge to scratch, applying an anti-itch ointment may also provide relief, she adds.
However, if your symptoms persist for more than a few hours or if you experience jogger’s irritation repeatedly (i.e. after every workout), it is advisable to consult a healthcare professional to identify the underlying cause of your itchiness and receive appropriate treatment, says Eleázar.
How to Prevent Jogger’s Irritation
The initial step in keeping jogger’s irritation at bay? Wear moisture-wicking garments laundered with a mild detergent and ensure that your skin remains dry to prevent potential irritation. Then, stick to an exercise plan that allows you to be consistent and gradually increase the intensity of your workouts, says Eleázar. (Seeking guidance from a running coach to create this plan can be particularly beneficial, she adds.) “If you go from zero to one hundred and your body reacts this way, it’s a sign that it’s a bit too demanding, it’s a bit excessive for you at that time,” she says. Consider incorporating walks into your runs, reducing the duration of your running sessions, or overall decreasing the intensity of your workouts so that your body can adapt to the surge of blood and avoid quick exhaustion, she explains. (
“Similar to everything else, if you transition from one extreme to another, it’s not beneficial for your body,” says Eleázar. “So attempting to expose it to a certain level of stress while allowing it time to recover is the most effective way to overcome it.”
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