It starts as a tingling in my thighs and calves. After several minutes, right around the time when I’m supposed to be settling into a nice rhythm, it erupts into full-blown, supremely annoying itchiness. My runs usually end with me clawing at my legs on the side of the road, while passersby give me weird looks.
I figured I couldn’t be the only one with this problem. So when I was out walking with a bunch of science writers one night last year and two of them began discussing their running routines, I piped up.
“Hey,” I said, “do your legs itch like crazy when you run?” I expected them to respond with sympathetic cries of “Oh yeah, that’s the worst!” followed by tales of their Itchiest Runs Ever, or maybe suggestions for exotic lotions to soothe the irritation.
Instead, they stared. “What?!” said one of them, as if I’d just asked whether they oozed green slime when they ran. “NO.” Then she laughed at me.
OK, fine. If I couldn’t find commiseration among this group, I’d surely find it on the Internet. And I did: A quick Google search brought up complaints from dozens of fellow sufferers, who described the sensation as “an INSANE itch,” “pure hell,” and enough to make them want to “scratch until I bleed,” “take a knife to my legs,” or — my favourite — “blast my face off.”
These poor people, whose desire to exercise clearly exceeded mine by several orders of magnitude, had tried everything. They had scratched their itches with their key card, twigs, and a steel brush. They had poured water bottles over their legs and jumped into cold showers. In an effort to stave off the itch before it began, they had done everything from eating bananas to wearing three pairs of socks. One runner’s coping strategy involved “screaming with rage” and “combining my anger with a visualisation of the itching as as [sic] points of light coming towards me”. (My strategy: Instead of running, lie on the couch eating cheese doodles and watching Project Runway. Problem solved.)
But what, exactly, was causing the itchiness? One of the most commonly-cited explanations was that out-of-shape schlubs like me, upon venturing out in their sneakers for the first time in weeks or months, have collapsed capillaries. Once we start to run, the capillaries open up to allow more blood flow, and nearby nerves send an “itch” signal to the brain.
So the obvious solution is to endure the initial discomfort and exercise regularly until it goes away. But some commenters dismissed this explanation, saying that they were active cyclists or swimmers; one described herself as the only member of her track team “with bloody legs and tear stained cheeks by the end of practice.” People who got the itch mainly when exercising outdoors or in cold weather chalked up the problem to vibrations from the impact of running (which are softened on a treadmill) or the temperature difference between their skin and the air.
The most scientific-sounding explanation I could find was that itchy runners may suffer from a condition called cholinergic urticaria: hives induced by exercise, a rise in body temperature, or stress. Some people have found relief by taking antihistamines before they run. One 25-year-old patient, however, had a case so severe that he began to itch even when climbing a flight of stairs or carrying groceries. Antihistamines didn’t help him, but antibodies against immunoglobulin E, a protein involved in allergic reactions, did.
So has any of this convinced me to start running again? Not really. The truth is, I hate running, and the itchiness provides a convenient excuse to avoid it. For now, I’m sticking to yoga. Or Project Runway.
(A fascinating side note: During my Googling, I came across comments from people who not only itched when they walked or ran, but experienced strong feelings of disgust. They felt suddenly and unaccountably repelled by dirt, wet grass, gum, puddles, and tree bark. These emotions made the itching even worse. “I can’t look at anything dirty or gross and if I do then I just want to die,” wrote one person. “It’s the most torturous feeling in the world that I can’t even begin to describe.” I can’t imagine what is going on in these people’s bodies. But if there’s anything worse than unbearable itching, it’s unbearable itching combined with visceral horror.)
Click Images | Shutterstock