Track Hack: The Science Behind Runner’s Cough

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Cross Training For Runners
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David Dack

Have you ever been on a jog only to have a surprise coughing fit steal your runner’s high? Well, you’re in for a treat because we’re about to dive into the nitty-gritty of this common annoyance that even the pros can’t always dodge.

But don’t worry because today’s post is all about unraveling the mystery behind that pesky runner’s cough.

We’ll dive into the nitty-gritty of why it happens, and even better, I’ll arm you with some killer tips to kick it to the curb. So, are you ready to breathe easy and run free?

Great! Let’s lace up and dive right in!

How Is Common Coughing After Running?

First things first, let’s establish that this running-related coughing is a pretty darn common occurrence among runners. It’s so common that it’s even been christened with some catchy nicknames like “track hack” and “pursuer’s cough.”

Now, here’s the kicker: this cough can be a bit unpredictable. Sometimes, it barges in right after you finish your run, like an uninvited guest crashing a party. Other times, it decides to play hard to get and waits until you’re well into your run to make its grand entrance.

Sneaky, right?

The good news is, for most of us, this cough isn’t the relentless type. It usually doesn’t stick around for more than an hour, nor does it decide to hang out with us 24/7.

But what’s causing it in the first place?

Well, that’s where things get interesting, and we’re about to unravel the mystery.

What Is Coughing?

Alright, folks, let’s start by demystifying the fascinating world of coughing and how it all works.

You might know it as a cough, but in the scientific realm, it’s known as tussis. This nifty little reflex, whether you do it voluntarily or it happens without you even thinking, plays a crucial role in keeping your airways and throat clean and clear of any pesky irritants, microbes, mucus, fluids, and all sorts of foreign particles. Think of it as your body’s own personal cleaning crew for the upper respiratory system.

Here’s the breakdown of how it goes down: when something irritating decides to set up camp in your airways or throat, your body doesn’t just sit around twiddling its thumbs.

No siree!

It sends a quick message up to your brain, like, “Hey, we’ve got a situation here!” Your brain, being the boss that it is, then commands the muscles in your chest and abdomen to get to work. Their mission? To push a gust of air out of your lungs, clearing out the irritant in the process.

Now, let’s connect the dots a bit. If you’re someone who’s no stranger to seasonal allergies, your cough might be triggered by allergens like dust or pollen. Yep, those pesky little particles can really stir up a commotion in your airways.

And hold onto your hats because we’re about to uncover a real game-changer. Poor air quality, which we’ll delve into later, can also throw a wrench into your airway’s machinery and lead to some serious coughing episodes.

Now, don’t fret if you occasionally find yourself in a coughing fit. It’s a normal part of life.

However, there are situations where your body might be trying to tell you something more significant, and that’s when you might want to consider some medical attention (more on this later).

Runners Cough – Why Am I Coughing After Running

Here are the most common reasons why you might be coughing during and/or after running.

Cause Number 1 – Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction

If coughing is a common occurrence during your running, then you might be dealing with exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, or EIB for short. You see, EIB is what used to go by the name “exercise-induced asthma.”

Picture this: you’re out there, giving it your all during your run, and suddenly, your airways decide to go on a temporary lockdown.

Yep, that’s EIB at work.

During intense exercise, your airways can get a bit cranky and decide to constrict or tighten up. This not-so-friendly constriction can trigger a cough that hangs around for a few minutes, and it brings its buddies along, like wheezing and shortness of breath.

Now, here’s a little insider info: if you already have asthma or other respiratory issues, you’re in the high-risk category for dealing with EIB.


Alright, let’s dig a little deeper into this exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB) business.

When EIB decides to crash your workout, it often makes its grand entrance about 10 to 15 minutes into your sweat session. But here’s the good news – it usually packs up and leaves the party within an hour or less.

Now, how do you recognize this unwelcome guest at your lung party? Well, here are the telltale signs:

  • Wheezing: Yep, that high-pitched whistle coming from your chest.
  • Coughing: The star of the show is your persistent cough.
  • Chest tightness: Like your lungs are caught in a vise.
  • Shortness of breath: You’re gasping for air like you just ran a marathon.
  • Fatigue during running: Suddenly, it feels like you’re dragging a ball and chain.
  • Mediocre performance: Your personal bests take a backseat.

Now, here’s the kicker: if you ignore EIB’s shenanigans and let it run wild, it can escalate into a serious and sometimes life-threatening condition. This is especially true if you’re already grappling with existing lung issues.

To make matters worse, EIB might even force some runners to retire from logging the miles for good. Imagine the toll that takes on your quality of life when something you love – like running – becomes a no-go zone.

The Solution

Take the following steps to reduce your risk of EIB:

Take medicine: When it comes to dealing with exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), albuterol is a true-and-tested solution. This quick-acting medication can work wonders by temporarily opening up your airways. Inhalers are another fast acting remedy for the condition.

  • Use it early: Many doctors recommend using this fast-acting emergency medicine about 15 to 20 minutes before you lace up your running shoes. By taking it ahead of time, you can often enjoy hours of uninterrupted, cough-free running bliss.
  • Warm up: A warm-up is essential before any run, but for those with EIB, it’s absolutely crucial. This allows your body to ease into physical activity and adjust to the increased breathing rate, which, in turn, prepares it for the more intense exercise that lies ahead.

Cause Number 2 – Seasonal Allergies

Seasonal allergies are the bane of every runner’s existence during certain times of the year.

According to the wise folks at the American Lung Association, pollen is the undisputed champion of springtime allergy villains. When the pollen count starts to skyrocket, you might notice a not-so-friendly change in your running routine. Coughing becomes an unwelcome companion during your workout and continues to haunt you even after you’ve crossed the finish line.

But that’s not all; your body might throw in some bonus symptoms for the ride. Think sneezing, wheezing, and, yes, more coughing.

So, what’s the deal with pollen? Well, those tiny particles, along with mold spores, decide to go on a mission to irritate your airways. They hang around in the air, waiting for you to take a breath, and then bam – irritation central!

The Solution

Alright, let’s tackle this pollen problem head-on and ensure you can enjoy your outdoor runs without any allergic backlash. Here’s the game plan:

  • Check the Levels: Before you lace up those running shoes, do a quick check of the pollen count for the day. If it’s soaring to dizzying heights, it might be wise to consider alternatives.
  • Get App-Savvy: Luckily, we live in the age of technology, where there’s an app for just about everything. There are handy apps out there that can help you predict the pollen count for the day.
  • Become an Indoor Enthusiast: When the pollen count is through the roof, it might be a good idea to embrace your indoor runner alter ego. Keep those allergies at bay by hitting the treadmill or finding indoor alternatives for your workout routine.
  • Take Antihistamine: If you’re itching for that invigorating outdoor run but don’t want to surrender to the treadmill, try an antihistramine. Now, before you pop a pill, a word of caution: like any medicine, antihistamines come with their own set of side effects, and the front-runner in this category is drowsiness.

Additional resource – What’s the best temperature for running

Cause Number 3 – Postnasal Drip

If you’ve ever found yourself hacking up phlegm and wheezing after a chilly jog, chances are you’re dealing with a classic case of post-nasal drip.

Let me explain. Deep within your throat and nose, there’s a diligent team of glands constantly producing mucus. Their mission? To keep your nasal membranes nice and moist, to help you expel any unwanted invaders, and to wage war on potential infections. Most of the time, this mucus goes about its business without you even noticing.

But here’s the plot twist: when certain triggers come into play – think sinus infections, air irritants, the common cold, or, in our case, braving the cold weather for a run – your body can go into mucus overdrive. Suddenly, you’ve got more mucus than you know what to do with.

So, what happens next? Well, all that extra mucus starts pooling in the back of your throat. And guess what? It’s not your throat’s biggest fan. This irritates your throat, and before you know it, you’ve got yourself a full-blown cough.

The Solution

Take the following measures to keep post-nasal drips while running at bay.

  • Stay Inside: First and foremost, when the cold weather strikes, consider becoming a homebody. Staying inside as much as possible can help prevent your cough from worsening. It’s like giving your throat a break from the chilly air and potential irritants.
  • Use OTC Medicine:  If post-run coughing is your nemesis due to post-nasal drip, don’t hesitate to turn to the medicine aisle at your local pharmacy. Over-the-counter (OTC) oral decongestants, guaifenesin (a mucus thinner), or antihistamines can be your trusty allies. These medications can help thin out that troublesome mucus and soothe your nasal membranes.
  • Rinse: Before you brave the cold for a run, consider giving your nasal passages a thorough rinse with a saline solution. You can do this with a trusty neti pot or a bulb-squeeze syringe. This simple yet effective practice can help wash away irritants or allergens that might be lurking in your nasal passages.
  • Humidify: Another nifty trick to keep your respiratory system running smoothly is to inhale some soothing vapors or steam. Just add a few drops of essential oils or eucalyptus into hot water, then inhale deeply. This moisture-rich therapy helps moisten your nasal passages, thins out secretions, clears away mucus clogs.

Cause Number 4 – Running In Cold Weather

When you hit the trails during the cold season, you’re not just breathing in brisk, chilly air – you’re inhaling air that’s both colder and drier than the cozy atmosphere in your lungs.

This temperature difference sets off a chain reaction.

Your lungs, trying to adapt to this Arctic blast, experience heat loss, which can lead to a slew of uncomfortable symptoms like shortness of breath, wheezing, and, yes, that persistent cough while you’re out there getting your exercise groove on.

But wait, there’s more to the story. Research straight from the National Library of Medicine tells us that cold air doesn’t just play havoc with your lungs’ thermostat; it also messes with the moisture and heat levels in your respiratory system. This sets the stage for that oh-so-familiar scratchy, dry cough that can haunt your outdoor runs.

The Solution

To reduce your risks, do the following:

  • Cover your Face: If you’re heading out for a run in chilly weather, think about wrapping up your face with a mask or a scarf. Not only does this stylish accessory keep you cozy, but it also does double duty by adding moisture to the air you breathe and filtering out those pesky large particles.
  • Train Indoor: If you’re someone who’s prone to coughing and the cold weather is just too much to bear, don’t hesitate to make a strategic retreat indoors. Your trusty treadmill is your best friend in this scenario.

Cause Number 5 – Acid Reflux

The dreaded heartburn is a pesky condition that can turn a great run into a fiery ordeal. Officially known as gastroesophageal reflux, it’s like a fiery sensation in your chest that can strike when you least expect it.

Here’s how it works: while you’re in the midst of an invigorating workout, the acids from your stomach decide to make an unwelcome guest appearance in your throat.

Specifically, this sneaky move happens when the lower esophageal sphincter, a little muscle band at the bottom of your esophagus, decides to take a break or simply gets weak.

So, imagine this: you’re out there pounding the pavement or conquering the trails, and suddenly, your body decides to start coughing up mucus. Why? Well, it’s like your body’s way of trying to neutralize those irritating stomach acids that have decided to go on a field trip to your throat.

The Solution

When it comes to taming the fiery beast of heartburn during your runs, here are some practical steps to help keep it at bay:

  • Get OTC: Head on over to your local pharmacy and ask for some over-the-counter medication designed to tackle heartburn. These medications can often work wonders in soothing those uncomfortable symptoms.
  • Avoid Trigger Foods: Some of the most common culprits include citrus fruits, coffee, mint, onions, shallots, and more. Instead of courting heartburn, opt for foods that actually help reduce acid reflux. Think vegetables, lean meats, eggs, seafood, oatmeal, and the soothing wonders of ginger, especially in the form of tea.

Additional resource – GI distress in runners

Cause Number 6 – Vocal Cord Dysfunction

Here’s the final piece of the puzzle: Vocal Cord Dysfunction (VCD), a lesser-known but no less troublesome cause of coughing during your runs.

This condition takes place when the muscles in your larynx – that’s your voice box – decide to go rogue. Instead of doing their job and allowing you to breathe freely, they tighten up and essentially slam the door shut when you inhale.

Unlike our earlier culprit, EIB, VCD is not a shy troublemaker. It has a flair for drama and can force you to start coughing while you’re out there pounding the pavement, as exercise is a known trigger for VCD. The telltale signs? You might feel a tightness in your throat, experience wheezing when you inhale, and, yes, the inevitable cough.

But VCD doesn’t stop there. It can also mess with your vocal cords, causing your voice to change or become hoarse. Breathing can become a real challenge, making it feel like there’s a lump in your throat that just won’t budge.

The Solution

When it comes to managing the more common causes of running-related coughs like seasonal allergies, post-nasal drips, or running in the cold, there are steps you can take on your own to alleviate symptoms and enjoy your runs in peace.

However, when it comes to dealing with severe and persistent symptoms of Vocal Cord Dysfunction (VCD), it’s crucial to consult your doctor for a comprehensive medical evaluation. While many conditions can be managed with medication, VCD often takes a different approach, relying on speech therapy rather than pharmaceuticals.

During a VCD speech therapy session, you’ll work with a trained therapist who will teach you techniques and exercises specifically designed to reduce the symptoms associated with VCD. These vocal exercises are aimed at soothing throat strain, finding the optimal volume and pitch for speaking, and practicing controlled breathing.

By mastering these techniques and exercises, you can gain better control over your vocal cords and manage VCD more effectively. Not only will this help you speak more clearly, but it can also reduce irritants within your throat and alleviate breathlessness, allowing you to enjoy your runs and everyday life with greater ease.

When To See A Doctor

When it comes to symptoms like those associated with exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB) and Vocal Cord Dysfunction (VCD), getting a precise diagnosis is crucial. Many conditions can indeed trigger similar symptoms, and knowing the exact cause is the first step to effective treatment.

So, here’s the golden rule: if you’re experiencing symptoms of EIB or VCD, or if those symptoms persist despite your best efforts to manage them, it’s time to consult your doctor.

They have the expertise and tools to provide a thorough diagnosis, ensuring you get the right treatment plan.

And remember, there are certain red flags that should prompt an immediate call to your doctor, such as:

  • Shortness of breath or wheezing that severely affects your ability to breathe.
  • A high fever.
  • Heart palpitations or irregular heartbeat.
  • A cough that worsens despite using over-the-counter medications.
  • Halitosis (persistent bad breath).
  • Swelling around your jaw and mouth.
  • A rapid and unexplained change in weight.

These warning signs shouldn’t be ignored, as they may indicate a more serious underlying issue that requires prompt medical attention.

Runners Cough – The Conclusion

There you have it!

If you often cough either during or after a run, then today’s post should be enough to guide you on the right path toward soothing what’s ailing you. The rest is really up to you.

Please feel free to leave your comments and questions in the section below.

In the meantime, thank you for dropping by.

David Dack.

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