Coughing during or after running isn’t always indicate a problem. But sometimes, it may be the result of a single issue or a slew of overlapping problems.
Whether you refer to it as runner’s cough or track hack, it can be annoying and may have gotten you worried about what’s causing it.
In fact, I have found many times over the years that I’ll have a light cough for the rest of the day after my long runs! So I was extra curious to see if there was a reason that made sense to me!
Knowing exactly why you’re coughing after running can be tricky. But in this article, I’ve covered the top 7 possible causes of coughing after running, along with what you can do for each of them.
I’ve also mentioned the 7 ways you can prevent coughing after a run and exactly when you should consider heading to a doctor.
7 Possible Causes for Coughing After a Run
If you find yourself frequently wondering ‘why do I cough after running’, it may be due to one of these seven possible causes. Let’s look at each of them in more detail:
1. Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction (EIB)
Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (or exercise-induced asthma) is a common condition which involves the temporary narrowing of the airways in the lungs in response to an increased heart rate.
When the airways constrict, it becomes more difficult to get air into the lungs, and the body responds by coughing.
People with exercise-induced bronchoconstriction have inflammation and might produce excess mucus after a run. It can occur during a run, but is most frequently seen immediately following a run or during short bursts of fast running.
One study showed over 20 to 60% of elite athletes such as long-distance runners, Olympic athletes, and professional soccer and basketball players. Many are unaware of it, so this is not a performance limiter.
Besides coughing, symptoms of EIB may include:
- shortness of breath
- chest tightness
- decreased endurance.
The severity of this condition can range from mild to severe depending on the severity of the symptoms themselves.
What You Can Do for EIB
If this occurs frequently, you may want to consider speaking with your doctor about using an inhaler 15 to 20 minutes prior to your run. A doctor may also prescribe medicine to temporarily open up your airways in some circumstances.
- Read more tips for running with asthma >>
- Ensure you always complete a warm up prior to your workout
- Try breathing through your nose
2. Seasonal Allergies
Depending on the time of year, the same pollen that causes sneezing and a runny nose in some people such as a hay fever might also induce coughing following or even during a run.
The deep breaths you take while running increase the amount of pollen and mold spores in your lungs’ airways, producing discomfort and a tickly cough.
What You Can Do for Seasonal Allergies
If you believe that poor air quality is causing your coughing, try to run at times of day when pollen counts are lowest, such as early in the morning or late in the evening.
If you’re having a really difficult time, consider running indoors on days with a high pollen count.
Since this is a topic close to my heart, here are 15 tips for running with allergies >>
You might be surprised to know your lotion could be part of the problem!
3. Postnasal Drip
If your cough frequently produces phlegm and you find yourself cleaning your throat frequently or suffering from a chronic sore throat, you may have post-nasal drip.
As the name indicates, this condition results in mucus dripping from the nose to the throat, causing discomfort and coughing. It is caused by a number of reasons, including the common cold, sinus infections, allergies, and even poor air quality.
What You Can Do for Postnasal Drip
Drink lots of water throughout the day to help thin down your mucus and allow it to move more readily through your nasal passages. Hot drinks, such as herbal tea, work particularly well.
Wearing a face covering such as a scarf while running can also help minimize mucus since it warms the air and adds moisture to it before you breathe it in.
4. Acid Reflux
Coughing up phlegm can also be a symptom of acid reflux, especially if it is accompanied by a sensation of something being stuck in your throat.
Stomach acids rise up your esophagus into your throat, causing discomfort and coughing. This condition is also known as laryngopharyngeal reflux.
What You Can Do for Acid Reflux
Avoid foods that might cause acid reflux, such as coffee, alcohol, citrus fruits, spicy foods, onions, and tomatoes.
You should try to avoid these foods for at least a few hours before running so that they don’t reappear during or following your run. If this is a common occurrence, read more about how long to wait after eating to exercise.
5. Cold Weather
When you run outside in cold weather you’re breathing drier air than what’s in your body.
This is because cold air usually contains less moisture than warm air. Breathing a significant amount of cold air can dehydrate air passageways, causing them to narrow and not allow much air to pass through
When you inhale air that is drier than the air currently in your body, you may have a cough. This generally more common the winter when the air is significantly dryer than it is during the summer.
Unless you live somewhere like Phoenix, where super hot dry summer temps could also cause the issue.
When this condition develops, you may experience difficulties inhaling air, comparable to EIB. This discomfort may result in coughing.
What You Can Do During Cold Weather
Wearing a face mask throughout the winter can help moisturize and warm the air you’re inhaling before it reaches your lungs, which will in turn reduce coughing.
There’s a ton more you can do to make winter running better. Checkout these winter running tips to feel better and stay safe.
6. Vocal Cord Dysfunction
Voice Cord Dysfunction (VCD), occurs when the vocal cords close abnormally during inhalation and exhalation. It is less prevalent than the other suspected reasons for runner’s cough, although it can also trigger coughing.
VCD can be induced by respiratory irritants, upper respiratory infections, or exercise. Unlike asthma, it does not affect the lower airways and is not an immune system reaction.
Symptoms that would clue you to this:
- Wheezing (so more than a cough)
- Tightness in your through
- Being Hoarse or Vocal Changes
If you have more difficulty breathing in than out and if asthma medications have been ineffective, you want to consider getting checked for VCD.
What You Can Do for VCD
If you believe this may be the case, consult your physician who will be able to diagnose and then treat your symptoms.
7. Common Cold
While colds are not typically related to coughing, they do occasionally impact the lungs and cause coughing after or even during running.
The common cold is often more than simply coughing; it also contains a number of other symptoms, including the following:
- a blocked or runny nose
- a sore throat
- muscle aches
- a raised temperature
- pressure in your ears and face
What You Can Do for Common Cold
If you believe you’re suffering from a common cold, consider going to your doctor or local pharmacist who can give you some over the counter medication to treat it.
You can run with a cold, but checkout those tips. It’s key not to make anything worse!
How Much Running Can Cause These Issues?
Any amount of running could trigger a coughing fit if you have any of the problems we have listed above. Compared to, say, seasonal allergies, conditions like EIB and VCD are much more severe. Here’s an estimate on how much exercise can trigger these conditions:
We’ve already talked about how EIB can make you cough after running. You might think that this happens after running a long distance or doing a fast or hard workout.
However, the Multidisciplinary Cough Program at Ohio State University reports that as little as 10 to 15 minutes of activity can bring on the condition.
Please stop all exercise and take a break if you frequently cough after running, sprinting, or swimming since EIB can be quite harmful during particularly intensive workouts.
A 2012 study found that the benefits of EIB typically start to fade after 30-90 minutes. Use this time to relax and regain your composure.
Take several deep breaths before determining to move your body again, as it is very easy to panic in this state. To avoid experiencing an even more severe case of shortness of breath, please try to maintain a state of calm while you work to restore your normal breathing pattern.
According to research, VCD can happen even more quickly than EIB. A 2016 study discovered that VCD symptoms, such as coughing after an intense run, could appear after only 3-9 minutes of activity.
VCD, in contrast to EIB, is more challenging to detect because its attacks and symptoms don’t last for long periods of time but are still pretty serious. This is backed up by a 2008 study that looked into VCD attacks and found that they could last for as little as 1-2 minutes.
You may have VCD if you cough persistently while running or exercising but rapidly regain your breath and normal breathing pattern afterward.
How Coughing After Running is Diagnosed
Getting an accurate diagnosis from your physician is critical for treating a cough, all the more so because the cause of coughing after running might range from a medical issue to environmental variables.
Your doctor will review your medical history and ask important questions to determine the source of your cough.
If your doctor suspects you have EIB, he or she will search for a cluster of similar clinical symptoms such as exercise-induced coughing, shortness of breath, or wheezing.
Additionally, they may use objective examinations such as lung function tests that measure the lungs at rest and during activity. This may also be referred to as an exercise challenge.
While having an asthma diagnosis increases your risk of acquiring EIB, research indicates that between 5% and 20% of the general population (those without asthma) has EIB. This figure dramatically increases in patients with asthma and accounts for 90% of EIB cases.
7 Ways to Prevent Coughing After Running
I’ve mentioned the specific solutions to each of the possible causes of coughing after running above, but here are the top 7 ways you can prevent it from ever occurring in the first place:
1. Minimize Exposure to Cold
If you notice that you cough more after running in the cold, it’s possible that your lungs are responding to the dry, chilly air.
If this is the case, consider running on a treadmill or indoor track during exceptionally cold weather. At the very least schedule your run during the warmest part of the day.
If there is no way around running in the cold, warm up slowly and gradually to allow your lungs to adjust to the conditions. Also, avoid pushing the pace when the temperature is unusually low.
And practice breathing through your nose, where the air has a little more chance to warm up before hitting the lungs.
2. Avoid Running Outside During High Pollen Count
If allergies or other airborne irritants appear to be causing your coughing, check the pollen count and air quality before venturing out for a run.
This information should be readily available online. A great option is the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAI)’s website.
With some trial and error, you should be able to determine what amounts of pollen or poor air quality you can endure and what levels you cannot.
When conditions are bad, consider training indoors or rescheduling your run. The American Lung Association has even labeled spring as the most harmful season for allergy and asthma sufferers, so be particularly careful during that time of the year.
3. Try an Inhaler
If you have asthma or EIB, you probably have an inhaler that can help avoid or reduce coughing if taken just before your run.
Consult your healthcare provider to discover if this is a suitable option for you and, if so, when and how to use your inhaler most effectively.
If you suffer from allergies or postnasal drip, over-the-counter antihistamines or oral decongestants may be beneficial.
If you suffer from acid reflux, over-the-counter antacids or acid reducers may alleviate your symptoms and enable you to run cough-free.
4. Avoid Acid-Causing Foods
Also, if you think acid reflux is to blame for your post-run cough, avoid foods that can cause acid reflux, like coffee, alcohol, citrus fruits, spicy food, onions, and tomatoes, for at least a few hours before running.
5. Wear a Face Covering
If coughing fits are interfering with your training, you may want to consider using a face mask on your next run. Utilizing a face mask or another type of covering can assist in keeping the air moist and filtering out big particles.
If you believe your cough is the result of a cold or upper respiratory infection, consider taking a few days off to allow your body to recover and prevent aggravating your symptoms.
7. Drink More Water
Make sure to stay hydrated and drink a lot of water during the day as it’ll help thin down your mucus and allow it to move more readily through your nasal passages. This, in turn, will reduce coughing.
Should I Run With a Cold?
If you’ve reviewed the lists above and determined that you have a cold, this section is for you.
Running through a cold is annoying, and it can cause you to miss training sessions, but it doesn’t always have to. There are instances in which it is acceptable to run with a cold.
Should you run if you have a cold?
Most runners follow the golden rule “above the neck” when making this choice. This means if you have above the neck symptoms, you might be able to go out for a run!
So if you have chest pain or other below the neck symptoms, you should stay home and rest. But if your nose, throat, or ears hurt a little from a cold, you should be able to go for a run. And it might even make you feel better.
If your cold symptoms are above the neck, running may even help relieve your cough and other upper-body symptoms.
This is not a perfect rule though, and there are definitely some exceptions. Check out my complete guide to running with a cold to learn everything there is to it.
When to See a Doctor If You’re Coughing After Running
It’s possible to handle occasional coughing after running on your own, especially if it’s due to seasonal allergies or postnasal drip. However, if symptoms persist or are more than mild, you should consult a physician.
If your cough is accompanied by other serious symptoms such as high fever, palpitations in the heart, or shortness of breath, seek immediate medical assistance.
Coughing while running is not normally indicative of a serious health problem. If it persists, it’s important to rule out more concerning possible causes and obtain an accurate diagnosis.
If possible, keep a detailed record of your symptoms. This will assist your doctor in developing an appropriate diagnostic and treatment plan for you.
Particularly EIB and VCD may demand professional attention. Controlling EIB or any form of asthma may need experimenting with different inhalers and drugs to discover the most beneficial combination.
VCD may require speech therapy to help you learn to relax your throat, breathe with your abdomen, and maintain open vocal folds. Your doctor may also help you learn some breathing techniques that can help your upper airways and voice box relax.
However, a little post-run coughing is neither unusual nor harmful, and should not prevent you from running.
Simply limiting your exposure to cold and respiratory irritants, gradually warming up, and, if required, treating your symptoms with diet changes and medication may be sufficient to stop the coughing.
Looking for more training tips?
- Beginners Guide to Running Track
- Best Home Treadmills for Running
- Manual vs Motorized Treadmill
- Half Marathon Pace Chart
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