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From itchy eyes to runny noses to overall fatigue, seasonal allergy symptoms can wreak havoc on your training schedule. And unfortunately for some who suffer from perennial allergies to dust or dander, allergy season is every season.
The symptoms of allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever, are sneezing, itchy or runny nose, and congestion. The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology also recently recognized coughing as a symptom, which is important to keep in mind this spring—your coughing could very well be allergies and not something more serious like COVID-19.
Unlike food allergies, allergic rhinitis typically has a distinct nasal symptom. And if you have it, it could mean you have an allergy to pets, dust mites, trees, grasses, weeds, or airborne mold spores. Some of those can be avoided. Others, not so much. Especially if you love to run outside and don’t want to be banished to the treadmill for all of spring, summer, and early fall when pollen is at its highest.
So how can you maintain your fitness without leaking like a faucet? Here are six things you should know about allergies and running.
It’s not in your head. Allergy season is getting worse.
How often have you said, ‘My allergies are really bad this year,” and meant it? That bar for ‘really bad’ just keeps getting higher and higher.
“Environmental allergy seasons are determined by temperature, as temperature drives pollination,” says Elena Hsieh, MD, and assistant professor of immunology and microbiology and pediatrics at the University of Colorado Anschutz School of Medicine. “Recent climate change has certainly had effects in temperature changes, and therefore in the length of pollination season.”
A recent study conducted by a team from the University of Utah found that our warming climate is making allergy season longer and more potent. The researchers looked at pollen count data from 1990 through 2018 collected from 60 pollen count stations across the United States and Canada. What they found? Pollen season starts 20 days earlier, lasts 10 days longer, and bears 21 percent more pollen than it did in 1990.
The greatest increases in pollen were found in Texas and the Midwestern United States.
Allergies can affect running performance.
For a lot of people, physical activity seems to make their allergies flare up. “Allergies act up during a run for two main reasons. First, due to an increase in respiration during exercise, a runner takes in more allergens, such as pollens and mold spores. These particles impale themselves in the eyes, nose, sinuses, and lungs, where they exert their allergic mischief,” says Stephen Klemawesch, MD, owner of Allergy-Associates in Florida.
Second, air is cooled when you breathe heavily while running. This causes sinuses and lungs to constrict. “This happens even when you run in warm weather,” he says. Likewise, running in cold, dry air can make it harder for asthmatic people to breathe in the presence of outdoor allergens.
In addition: “Running in itself can increase nasal discharge and congestion, which are allergy symptoms and therefore makes one feel like the allergies are worse,” says Dr. Hsieh.
And if seasonal allergies are making it harder for you to breathe, that will translate into more difficulty running. Dr. Klemawesch has worked with world-class athletes who plan their training and competition locations around what will be best for their seasonal allergies. “I’d recommend that even amateur athletes who suffer from allergies select a destination for a big race, like a marathon, with this in mind,” he says.
Women may experience allergies differently.
“There is some research to suggest that estrogen has a pro-allergenic effect,” says Dr. Klemawesch. “Female athletes are more likely to feel the effect prior to and with the onset of their menstrual cycle.” If you suffer from seasonal allergies, you may notice the symptoms are worse or less tolerable during your period. Dr. Klemawesch recommends avoiding hard workouts or races during that time.
Dr. Hsieh adds that “there is not a lot of data to support that there are sex/gender differences in seasonal allergies.”
Regardless, doubling up on period symptoms and seasonal allergy flare-ups is a reasonable excuse to skip a run.
Watch the weather before heading out.
Weather can be an advantage or a deterrent for allergic athletes. Dry, windy weather being the worst of it. “Dry weather tends to make allergies worse because the pollen counts are higher and stay in the air longer,” says Dr. Hsieh. “Because pollen are small, light and dry, they can be easily spread by wind, which keeps pollen airborne and carries it over long distances.”
Getting out during or just after a spring rain is ideal in most scenarios. “Most pollens are washed out of the air by rain, but ragweed is actually released by raindrops hitting the plant,” says Dr. Klemawesch. “Rain also leads to an increase in mold spores. So depending on the pollen allergy, rain can help or hurt.”
Trail running lends greater exposure to pollen and mold allergens, whereas street running can reduce this exposure. Although road runners are more likely to be exposed to air pollutants from nearby car traffic. Wherever you run, be sure to check the current mold and pollen counts before you head out the door.
RELATED: How Air Pollution Affects Runners
Allergy symptoms can be managed.
“For sinus allergies, there are medications that can be taken both regularly and prior to exercise. Antihistamines, topical nasal steroids and respiratory anti-inflammatories, like Singulair, work best when taken every day—whether you work out or not,” says Dr. Klemawesch. He also recommends antihistamine nasal spray as a pre-run option.
Sometimes you may need professional help.
If over-the-counter medicines and avoiding the exposure aren’t working, a board-certified allergist can help you manage miserable allergy symptoms.
An allergist may do testing to pin-point what your exact allergy is. “After your allergies have been tested and identified, you can be desensitized via regular allergy drops or shots, where a small amount of an allergen is injected into your bloodstream until you build up immunity,” says Dr. Klemawesch.
Not being able to run comfortably during the most beautiful weather is really the pits. But by taking the time to understand how your allergies ebb and flow, you may be running clear of congestion in no time.