Runner’s itch is, unfortunately, one of these uncomfortable sensations we sometimes come across while running.
Running is one of the best things you can do for your body. It is a complex, full-body movement that has so many physical and mental benefits. But in some cases, running can have side effects that we have to deal with.
Runner’s itch is one of them.
This post will look at the causes of runner’s itch and what we can do to treat and prevent it.
What Is Runner’s Itch?
Runner’s itch is a tingling or itchy sensation in the legs, experienced during or after exercise. It’s usually caused by capillary expansion during a workout by new runners, or after a long period off running – but there are other potential causes worth investigating.
Why Do My Legs Itch When I Run?
You Took a Break
If you’ve taken a couple months off running, getting back into it can be a shock. We’ve all been there, whether it’s taking a break after an intense marathon, or just a natural effect of life getting too busy.
Lars Christian, running coach and owner of Run161, says that runner’s itch is a regular issue among his clients.
“I’ve had several clients who have experienced itchy legs while running. Most commonly, they tend to be new runners, or just getting back into it after a layoff. And the explanation for this is actually quite simple.
While we’re sedentary, there is limited blood flow to the tiniest veins in our muscles — the capillaries. When we start running again, the heart starts working, pumping blood through all veins in our legs and thighs. The capillaries then expand to accommodate the increased flow of blood, and in turn stimulate the surrounding nerve endings.
And they start itching.”
Bringing running back into your weekly fitness routine will take some getting used to. If you notice the intense itching sensation during this time, it is probably due to the blood flow in your legs.
Someone in good shape will have strong veins and capillaries running through their legs. Good blood flow and healthy blood pressure are common side effects of regular exercise.
If you’ve lost some fitness during your hiatus, the blood flow to and from your legs will ramp up during the initial weeks of getting back in shape. When this happens, you may feel itchy as the capillaries are expanding to new stronger levels just under your skin.
This is generally nothing to worry about, just something to keep in mind. For a runner, healthy legs are everything. It makes sense that without regular exercise, the veins and capillaries start to get a little lazy. They just need to wake up, and if your legs start itching while you do that, just keep going!
Your Skin Could be Reacting to Sweat
Working up a good sweat can feel great, but sometimes it wreaks havoc on your skin.
Especially during hot and humid weather, if you sweat a lot and soak your clothes, you run the risk of skin irritation. If it is really humid outside, your clothing gets wet and it may stay that way until you get home. That combined with the repetitive motions of running can lead to chafing and discomfort.
If you haven’t had a good sweat in a while, the first time you do so can cause a significant itch. As sweat escapes through the skin, this can be a little uncomfortable. The itch usually goes away pretty quickly if this is the cause.
Further irritation can happen if you have recently developed a sudden skin issue. A bad sunburn is a good example. If that happens, sweating through the damaged skin for the first time can start off itchy and then turn into agonizing pain.
If this is the case for you, be sure to wear loose clothes. Plan your route so that you’re not going far from home, in case you need to hustle back and get out of your shirt.
Dry Air and Dry Skin in Winter
In the winter months, dry air causes dry skin. This is no surprise to anyone that lives in a cold climate. When you combine dry skin with a cold and windy outdoor run, that’s a recipe for runner’s itch.
Avoiding dry skin in the winter can be an uphill battle. Moisturizers help but need to be used consistently.
This can get worse when running in tights or compression pants. The second-skin feel will help you move freely and keep you warm. But the friction against dry skin in the cold air can cause unpleasant itching. If your thighs itch when running, it could just be a result of your cold-weather gear working against you.
Apply moisture generously both before and after an outdoor run. Itchy legs after running can happen too.
Be sure to check out our tips for Cold Weather Running to keep you going during the winter months.
Solutions to Itchy Legs When Running
Christian offers up the same advice he gives his running clients with itchy legs.
“In my experience, the itching will calm down once the runner establishes a routine of regular running. I would recommend not working too hard as you’re just starting out, or getting back into it, as this will exacerbate the problem.
There are several tricks to alleviate the discomfort after the onset of the itch. A warm bath is a tried and tested option, and the same goes for icing the affected area. Some runners have also reported back to me that compression stockings have helped.”
Here are some additional solutions to your runner’s itch, if the problem still persists.
Rule Out Other Causes
Before looking into any of the solutions below, it is important to rule out any other medical causes of the itch. If your Runner’s Itch is painful, accompanied by a rash or hives, or is stopping you from being able to complete your runs, it is best to consult a doctor.
Stay Hydrated and Moisturize
Every runner knows that staying hydrated is the golden rule of the sport. For so many reasons, we have to stay properly hydrated to get through our workouts and races.
On top of the hydration needed to sustain your body, drinking enough water has an impact on your skin. Healthy skin requires a healthy, well hydrated, body.
Remember that nutrition impacts your hydration levels. You may be drinking plenty of water, but if you aren’t eating healthily, you can still get dehydrated. Salty foods are the biggest culprit. A diet high in salt can dry you out a lot.
Sugary foods and alcohol are other culprits to hydration. Salt, sugar and alcohol all need to be taken in moderation.
Use moisturizer regularly, especially during the winter. It is easy to remember to apply moisturizer to your face and hands during the winter. A regular application to your legs will help your skin stay soft and help you avoid the itch.
Don’t Give Up
Powering through is a great way to overcome Runner’s Itch. It may sound easier said than done, but the advice applies both to finishing a run as planned, and to keeping up with running regularly throughout the year.
If you start itching mid-run, it’s fine to take a break and scratch your legs or adjust your tights. This will bring some temporary relief. The itch may keep going as soon as you start up again. But, if you persevere, you can power through the itch.
Another tactic to avoid the itch is to keep running throughout the year. We’ve already seen that a common cause of Runner’s Itch comes from taking too much time off. That first couple of weeks back on the road can be tough. If you can, try not to slip out of fitness and just keep running.
Try New Gear
If your itch is being caused by tights that are too tight, a waistband that chafes, or even long socks that aren’t great quality, it may be time to try something new.
It can be frustrating to buy a new piece of gear and then find out it causes runner’s itch. You can always save it and try again in different weather, but ultimately you need a bit of trial and error to find the right gear.
Eliminate Any Other Skin Irritants
There are many things that can irritate your skin or dry it out. They usually seem harmless and have no effect, but then you go for a run and come across the itch.
This can include things like:
- Laundry detergent: you can get naturally made detergents or sensitive skin brands that relieve the itch.
- Household products like cleaning sprays or wipes
- Handsoap: Look for a brand that includes moisturizer to make sure it’s not drying out your skin.
Just Keep Running!
Runner’s Itch is a common problem. The best thing to do is keep running, unless your symptoms make you think there is something more serious at play. While annoying, the symptoms of runner’s itch should not get in the way of your training plan.
If you don’t have a training plan yet, download one from our free library of training plans.
These tips, along with listening to your body, will help you get through the itch and reach that finish line.