Runner's Itch: What Is It and How to Prevent It

Runner's Itch: What Is It and How to Prevent It

Your playlist is perfect. You’ve hit a great stride. You’re getting some on-point coaching cues from the trainer in your Openfit Live running class.

Then, suddenly, your skin starts to feel itchy and tingly, kind of like you passed through a poison ivy patch. What causes this “runner’s itch” — and should you be concerned? Here’s what you need to know.

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What Is Runner’s Itch?

rash on leg -- what is runners itch

Runner’s itch is an itchy feeling that can happen during strenuous exercise. The itch can occur anywhere on your body, including your stomach and arms, but it’s most common on the legs.

Fortunately, it’s not usually a concern, especially if it goes away soon after you stop running. If the itchiness doesn’t subside — or it’s accompanied by symptoms like hives or dizziness — talk to your doctor.

 

What Causes Runner’s Itch?

man itching back after run -- what causes runners itch

One common cause of runner’s itch is increased blood flow. This occurs most with people who are new to running or haven’t run in a while.

The intensity of the activity boosts your heart rate, which leads to expanded arteries and capillaries, as well as more blood flow to the muscles. When that happens, it can stimulate the nerve cells that run throughout the body. So what you’re feeling is not technically an itch but fired-up nerves.

Another possible cause — especially if the itchy area is covered by your clothing — is a mild allergic reaction to a product you’re using, such as laundry detergent or soap.

Fragrances in these products tend to be one of the top culprits for contact dermatitis, which is when your skin feels itchy because of contact with an allergen, says Lily Adelzadeh, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in California. As you sweat, your pores open up more, which could make you more likely to have a reaction.

Some people may experience exercise-induced urticaria, a condition which causes allergic symptoms like hives or swelling during or after physical activity. If you think this might be your issue, your doctor can help you identify potential triggers and control your symptoms.

 

How Do You Prevent Runner’s Itch?

man running -- prevent runners itch

The condition tends to be less problematic as your body — and your nervous system — gets used to running, so running on a regular schedule can help, says Adelzadeh.

You can boost your motivation and consistency by mixing up your training with different types of running workouts. Make sure to warm up before running, since that helps with blood flow.

Switching to fragrance-free detergent and dryer sheets for your running gear can help as well, Adelzadeh adds. Wearing moisture-wicking clothes can help minimize sweating, and compression socks can help with blood flow.

 

Can You Stop Runners Itch?

woman applying lotion at a running track -- can you stop runners itch

Prevention steps are helpful, but what can you do in the moment for that super itchy sensation?

Adelzadeh suggests rubbing your legs instead of scratching, since scraping the skin can make it more irritated. You may also want to try carrying a small bottle or baggie of unscented moisturizer with you, because dry skin can exacerbate the issue.

If possible, keep running. Getting your full workout will help you adjust faster and leave runner’s itch behind. But if your symptoms are severe or they don’t subside, talk to your doctor about possible treatment options.

Elizabeth Millard

About

Elizabeth Millard has written for Men's Health, SELF, Prevention, Runner's World, and several other health and wellness publications. Based in Northern Minnesota (yes, it's just as cold as you've heard), she's also a rock climber, obstacle course enthusiast, and registered yoga teacher. Follow her on Twitter.