Soreness, tiredness, and muscle burning are all sensations you might expect to feel while running. But… itching?!
Yep, it can happen. And if you’ve ever gone out for a run and started feeling like you had to start scratching your legs, don’t worry—you’re not alone.
There’s no official medical term for the phenomenon of your legs itching while running, but it’s commonly known as “runner’s itch,” according to Edward Laskowski, MD, a specialist in sports medicine at the Mayo Clinic. Other than being generally uncomfortable, we wanted to know whether all that itching means something, so Dr. Laskowski broke it down.
Possible reason #1: You just started running (again, or for the first time)
Dr. Laskowski says there are a couple of possible causes. The first has to do with how frequently you run. A muscle undergoing exercise requires more blood flow to get all of that sweet, sweet oxygen. When you run, you’re firing up those legs, so more blood gets sent to your calves, quads, and hamstrings. When you’re just beginning a running routine, or running for the first time in a long while, it can actually bring on the itching by increasing blood flow in your legs in a way your body’s not used to.
“Your return to exercise may cause blood capillaries in arteries in your legs to dilate,” Dr. Laskowski says. “This expansion can put pressure on and irritate small nerve rootlets to the skin and contribute to itching.”
Once your muscles actually grow more blood vessels to accommodate your new running routine and let the blood flow more easily, your body will get the message that this amount of blood flow is normal, and the irritation should taper off.
Possible reason #2: You’re having an allergic reaction
The next reason is a more external one. It’s possible that you could be having an allergic response to your clothes or laundry detergent. Sweating can even exacerbate this response.
Dr. Laskowski says there is also an actual condition called exercise-induced urticaris. In this instance, your body is having a reaction to exercise itself. Symptoms of the condition include itching as well as the development of hives and “a feeling of warmth” brought on by exercise.
How to deal with itchy legs
Of course, knowing what could be going on is only half the battle. What can you actually do about it? First, you’ll want to rule out that your clothing is part of the problem, so try switching out your running gear (ideally for something sweat-wicking), and experimenting with a gentle laundry detergent.
If it’s simply the novelty of your running habit that’s causing the problem, time is your best friend. Once you get more used to the activity, the symptoms should abate. If not, see your doctor or an allergy specialist for treatment, which might involve using an antihistamine.
In the meantime, Dr. Laskowski says “a regular exercise routine is one of the best ways to prevent runner’s itch and reduce its intensity.” If you do experience the itching, slow down, or maybe even be okay with taking a break until the next day.
Perhaps hardest of all, try not to scratch! It may provide temporary relief, but will cause a chemical reaction in your brain that ultimately makes the itch feel worse. Eek! Use ice or creams like cortisone and aloe vera instead.
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