Why I don’t run

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shutterstock_146500019I haven’t gone for a run in more than a year. The main reason I dislike running is that I’m lazy. But I have a second, slightly better excuse: Every time I run, my legs get unbearably itchy.

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.)

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16 thoughts on “Why I don’t run

  1. Wow! I only just found out that there is a name for it! Thank you for posting :) I get the same problem, though the itchiness dissipated about 15-30 minutes after I stopped running, but I’d still have red streaks/scratches and some little blotches on my thighs and calves thanks to the scratching I’ve done. I usually ignored it when I ran, concentrating on something else, but when I stopped running it I’d notice it immediately as it would have become VERY itchy by then. Later on I settled with slapping the itchy parts of my legs instead of scratching it (well, to be honest I still did a little bit of scratching), so at least I ended up with red marks on my legs and less blotches. Running was part of the warm up routine when I was still doing a lot of training so it usually helped by the fact that I went straight into another routine after the run that I could set my mind to concentrate with other tasks and tried my best to ignore the itch (when I got it – I got the itch most of the times when I ran, but not every single time, probably about 80% of the times).

    But this only happens when I run (I don’t know if I’d get the same problem if I bike since I don’t bike outside the gym, and I don’t recall getting that effect at the end of spin classes), I do lots of other exercises, and I don’t seem to have this problem from those. Does this mean that my problem isn’t the same as yours?

  2. Dee, I only get the itching when I run too. I don’t have a problem if I’m biking outside. Some people in online forums have suggested that it’s because of the vibrations caused by running when your foot hits the ground, but I don’t know how plausible that is.

  3. Actually, (so typical) as soon as I posted my previous comment I remembered that I got the itchiness when I went rollerblading too, and occasionally when I was fighting, but I’d be too busy to notice it during fights, so usually I’d feel it when I’ve finished or between rounds (sometimes). But again, the itchiness would dissipate about 15-30 minutes after I stopped.

  4. Thank you for posting this. I’ve dealt with this issue for years (from walking briskly or running) and my husband was the first person to believe what I was saying was true. He’s actually the one who came across the article on io9.com. While I’m not happy that others suffer from this horrible allergy, I’m at least glad to know I’m not the only one.

    I don’t think I’ve ever noticed it while doing yoga or biking – but when I do get this, it’s not only in my legs. I’ve had issues with the tops of my feet, the area above my hips on my back and sometimes even the back of my arm. Terrible.

  5. My guess is that the disgust response is somehow related to the “behavioural immune system” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behavioral_immune_system). It kind of makes sense that when having an immune reaction your brain would increase its disgust as that would hopefully prevent you from consuming whatever caused the immune reaction in the first place. In the case of an exercise allergy that system would misfire since you didn’t actually consume anything to prompt the immune reaction. But I have absolutely no qualifications with respect to immunology so I’m just spitballing here!

  6. These allergic reactions may result from stress resiliency lowered up/down hpa reactivity. This wud be on estrogen side, microbiota may create or assist and/or along with psych activation of HPA (compounding physical or vice versa)and possibly use techniques for reprogram reactivity

    Sex hormones and urticaria.
    http://www.researchgate.net/publication/5364224_Sex_hormones_and_urticaria?ev=prf_cit

    Between microbiota and immune
    http://www.med.upenn.edu/timm/documents/Science2012Hooper.pdf

    Clinicians examine mind-body connection of urticaria, stress – http://dermatologytimes.modernmedicine.com/dermatology-times/news/modernmedicine/modern-medicine-feature-articles/clinicians-examine-mind-body-?id=&sk=&date=&pageID=2#sthash.ZsO3oEmp.dpuf

    EMDR Use of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) in the treatment of dermatologic disorders.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/12001004/

  7. Oddly, another syndrome triggered by a rise in temperature and including feelings of horror and repulsion is menopausal hot flashes. I’m serious about the feelings — they’re really weird. Anyway, I’m now working on a theory here –.

  8. I get this when I exercise. I usually get it within 5 to 10 minutes of running. I have got it from biking, hiking, weight lifting, martial arts, and walking up hill. I also get it severely when I have hot air blow on me in a cold gym as well as having cool air blow on me in a warm gym. Funny thing is I don’t get any visible signs on my skin. Oh yeah and trying to power through it does not work as the sensation increases unless I stop what I’m doing for 5 to 10 minutes.

  9. I’ve experienced this! It was terrifying. I ended up literally rending my shirt in two just to stop the itching. Interestingly, it hasn’t happened since, and I think it was triggered by withdrawal from the over-the-counter allergy medication Zyrtec (an antihistamine). Some medications cause severe counter-reactions when you stop taking them, that’s for sure. Thank god it was temporary and I can run again.

  10. Ann, that’s crazy — I didn’t know that about menopause. And Reed, I hadn’t heard of the behavioral immune system either. Fascinating…

  11. Hi! I’ve had this for 2 years or so. Same as you – I don’t have issues with ballet barre or yoga. Just running, spinning, and sometimes walking (fast). I’m currently taking daily antihistamine and carry an EpiPen. I’m going to begin trying alternative therapy. I just started a blog about my progress if you’re interested.

  12. Yeah, I used to become really itchy when I ran as well. I was on the border of overweight and obese when I was in my teenage years, so I decided to exercise to become healthier. I’ll admit, the itchiness was really annoying and almost deterred me from keeping the cardio portion of my routine, but it completely went away once I got in shape. Now I’m at a normal weight for my age and height, and absolutely love exercise. I make going to the gym a priority and work out on every piece of equipment I can get my hands on – treadmill, barbells, weight machines, you name it.

  13. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve lived with a similar problem for the last 20 or so years, but my itchiness occurs on my legs shortly after I shower. I believe it may be aquagenic pruritus (http://www.aaaai.org/ask-the-expert/pruritus-with-showers.aspx), but I haven’t seen a doctor about it, because it only lasts for about an hour after showering, and isn’t accompanied by any visible symptoms (no rash, no redness, no hives…). It doesn’t seem to be related any of the soaps or other products I use. I’ve read that creams containing capsaicin may help to relieve the symptoms, but haven’t tried this yet. Mostly I just try to distract myself when it’s happening.

    Anyway, I can totally relate to what it sounds like you’re going through!

  14. I am 42, and I have experienced this intense itching in my legs when jogging or running my entire life. Even when I was younger and in very good shape. It seems to be worse as I get older, especially if I walk briskly or jog in cooler weather. I have cut walks short because I get so uncomfortable. I thought it was just me until I stumbled upon an article online a couple of years ago. Kind of scared me because it said it was an allergic reaction.

  15. I’m glad to find such a recent blog post about this. I went out with my two little boys this morning to enjoy a lovely walk on a crisp October morning. About a half mile in, the itch began. WTF? I wasn’t even running! And it’s not even that chilly outside! I clawed intermittently at my legs, hips, belly, and flanks as we walked, frequently stopping to scratch unabashedly on the side of the road. Then, the rage started. I don’t know why, but the itch is accompanied by a feeling that starts off as a swelling, like an on-coming runner’s high, and then quickly turns into such a white hot frustration that I could either scream or vomit. It. Is. Insane. I trudged along with my boys, breathing deeply and trying to get a frickin grip, but ended up cutting our walk short. FWIW, I’m no Olympian, but I stay in decent shape; better than most of my Mommy peers. I have had fainting issues in the past which have been linked to exercise induced syncope and a Vaso-Vagal nerve misfire. Thanks for the informative and funny post. I’m off to drink wine and watch Project Runway.

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