Allergies vary from person to person, and sometimes it’s hard to know how your body is going to react to the change of the season. As a runner who likely exercises outdoors, it may also feel difficult to prepare yourself for the road ahead when you don’t know if a stuffy nose will keep you from breathing well as you clock miles or if a sneezing fit will put a pause on your intervals.
Further complicating things: Research suggests that human-caused climate change has played a significant role in extending the pollen season by 20 days and increasing pollen levels. Therefore, experts say allergy season starts earlier, lasts longer, and ultimately is worse than it was prior to the 1990s. So, if your allergies make your runs feel harder right now, then you’re probably not the only one in search of urgent relief.
Here, we spoke to experts to better understand working out with allergies, including how one affects the other, and what measures you should take while exercising to better control allergy symptoms.
Table of Contents
How does working out affect allergies?
“We know that exercise supports a healthier immune system and allergies are really an over response of the immune system,” says Dawn Zacharias, M.D., FACAAI, senior attending physician at University Hospitals in Westlake, Ohio.
Studies have shown that exercise strengthens the immune system by enhancing its surveillance activity or when immune cells troll the bloodstream looking for infection.
“[A strong immune system] helps to keep things from kicking into overdrive, when the allergen triggers are around. [Exercise] really improves your body’s defense mechanisms against the allergens,” Zacharias adds.
A small study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2019 backs up the benefits exercise has on allergies. Researchers found that a 10-day winter exercise program, which consisted of hikes or snow-shoe tours that lasted three to four hours at a time, and four all-day ski sessions, helped reduce allergic airway inflammation in study participants with allergic rhinitis (of which pollen can be a trigger) and asthma.
Specifically, researchers noted participants had a significant reduction in airway inflammation after completing just one hike. However, the study only included 40 participants during a short time of the year (and not in spring!), so more research is needed to confirm exactly how exercise can affect allergies all year round.
All of this is just more of a reason to keep up with your running routine, as it can benefit your allergies. But there’s another side to the exercise and allergy relationship.
How do your allergies affect your workouts?
“The first thing that happens is inherently as you run, you increase your ventilation, you increase your respiration, so you’re inherently going to breathe in more of what’s in the atmosphere. Then, when there’s pollen out there, you’re going to breathe in more pollen than you normally would,” Robert Zemble, M.D., division of allergy chief at the Lehigh Valley Health Network tells Runner’s World.
If you suffer from seasonal allergies, you may experience nasal congestion, says Zemble. This will ultimately affect your breathing, which can then hinder your running performance.
What’s more: As you run, pollen can land on your face and skin, and get in your hair, which then can contribute to the start of an allergic reaction and possibly disrupt your workout depending on the severity and duration of the allergy attack. And the length of your reaction will depend on the phase of your allergic response and the amount of exposure to the allergen.
The early phase—which lasts for up to an hour—causes itchy and watery eyes, runny nose, and sneezy symptoms that’s driven by a chemical your body releases called histamine, says Zacharias. The second phase can last for minutes to hours after exposure and is driven by leukotrienes—which is released by your body after encountering an allergen—and other chemicals. This is why you can experience allergy symptoms for hours after you’re done running, Zacharias adds.
All of this has the potential to disrupt your workout, and according to one survey, published in 2019, it does for a majority of athletes struggling with pollen allergies. The observational study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, found 43 percent of the 636 respondents self-reported pollen allergies, and of those allergy sufferers, 80 percent reported performance impairments.
How can you control allergy symptoms when working out?
Experts offer these seven steps for reducing your allergy symptoms while on the run:
1. Take allergy medications
The best first step to controlling allergy symptoms is to start taking your medication before the actual allergy season begins. That means talking to your doctor or allergist to get tested for allergies, and then formulating a plan from there, Zemble says. If need be, your doctor will supply you with a prescription to meet your specific needs.
Also, there are plenty of over-the-counter medications and other products you get from the pharmacy to add to your runner’s toolkit that will offer you relief this season. For a long time, Benadryl has been a popular allergy medication, however, there are a plethora of non-drowsy medications runners can use, like Zyrtec, Claritin, Allegra, and more to help manage allergy symptoms.
You can also consider using intranasal antihistamines (nasal sprays), like Flonase, or oral decongestants like Sudafed (which contains pseudoephedrine, a decongestant), says Zacharias. Keep in mind pseudoephedrine, in particular, has known side effects such as insomnia, reduced appetite, and more. Also, if you have hypertension, heart disease, thyroid disease, or are a man who has difficulty urinating due to enlarged prostate, you should avoid taking this medication, Zacharais says.
Another hack to help you breathe through a stuffy nose: “You can increase the air-opening in your nose by using a Breathe Right strip or something similar, and that’ll help if you have any underlying congestion so you can maintain your performance,” Zacharias says.
2. Pay attention to pollen counts
The best time to run outdoors is when the pollen counts are low, Zacharias says. For example, “if you’re running after rain, the air is much, much cleaner. If you’re running in the early morning, the air is also cleaner,” she adds.
Check a pollen counter like the one hosted by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology or Pollen.com, before heading out to see what levels are and whether you should take the day’s workout indoors.
Also when pollen counts are high, don’t exercise near heavily-trafficked roads, as pollution can have an additive effect on pollen-induced symptoms, Nathanael Horne, M.D., allergist at NYU Langone Health tells Runner’s World.
Lastly, if you’re traveling for a race and plan to arrive more than a couple days beforehand, check the pollen levels and prepare your body with medications, Zacharias suggests.
3. Change your clothes after running outside
Airborne pollen and molds can travel many miles from their original source on your clothes and shoes to your car, couch, and even your pets. So, after running or coming in from outside, change your clothes and take a shower to remove adhering pollen, Horne says.
This could also be a great time to flush your nose with plain saline—a mixture of water and salt you can purchase over the counter—which you can also do after coming in from a run to help with congestion, Zacharias says.
4. Take extra precautions around the house
Zacharias suggests using a HEPA air purifier to clean air around your home throughout the day, particularly if you have a dog, as they can also track pollen inside.
An air purifier can also help at night, as will sleeping with the windows closed, because the pollen can blow in from outside and contribute to congestion and inflammation, says Zacharias. Your body is most susceptible to inflammation between the hours of 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. when cortisol—a hormone known for managing stress, but is also involved in fighting inflammation—levels are particularly low, she explains.
5. Consider taking a full-year approach to allergy management
You can take a whole-body approach to tackling your allergy symptoms by making an effort year-round to live a well balanced life, and not just focusing on short-term ways to address your allergy symptoms during the warmer months.
“Make sure you’re sleeping the appropriate amount of time [at least seven hours] because allergies cause stress to the body, so you want to make sure that you’ve replenished [your body] through good sleep,” Zacharias says.
Also, focus on eating a healthy diet that includes lean meats, vegetables, fruits and anti-inflammatory foods, because all of this can help you build a stronger immune system that helps control allergies.
What’s more, you might want to visit your local farmer’s market to purchase raw and unprocessed honey from your area. “There have been some studies that show [honey] does decrease your reactivity during the season. So we usually [recommend] a tablespoon of honey a day and you want to start that about a month before the allergy season,” Zacharias says.
6. Work with your healthcare provider to find a solution
When it comes to tackling allergy season, remember your symptoms may vary from day to day, just like the demands of your training. As we previously mentioned, the first step is working with a provider to identify an appropriate plan of attack.
You might find you need to go beyond the steps listed above to control symptoms. In this case, you’d definitely want to reach out to a doctor who can identify next steps, like possibly retraining your immune system or desensitizing yourself to what you’re allergic to through allergen immunotherapy injections or specific tablets for grass pollen, says Zemble.
Monique LeBrun joined the editorial staff in October 2021 as the associate health and fitness editor. She has a master’s degree in journalism and has previously worked for ABC news and Scholastic. She is an avid runner who loves spending time outside.