Running on meds: How antihistamines can damage your training

Being struck down by illness is always a big challenge. But when it's the miraculous meds which are negatively impacting your life and what you love doing (like running), it can be an even more frustrating and soul-searching time.

A study by the University of Oregon last year found that a high dose of antihistamine medication can blunt the 'recovery response' after exercise by almost a third. 

Though more research is needed, there was evidence to suggest that day-to-day use of these drugs can prolong muscle soreness and even make you more prone to muscle damage. 

Not good news for runners with hayever. But even though I don't get hayfever, this news affected me too. 

Last year I posted a blog on my experiences with chronic urticaria, a debilitating condition that came out of nowhere at the start of 2016.

This is a fickle condition to treat, not least because it's so random and can have any number of causes. Most people have 'chronic ideopathic urticaria', meaning the cause of these painful welts (also known as hives) are - and will most likely remain - a complete mystery.

In my case the doctor's verdict was something like: "probably salicylate-induced / a stressful 2015 / maybe autoimmune / just one of those things that will burn itself out."

This is a pretty common diagnosis. CIU sufferers rely on home trials of obscure diets, internet rumours and a cocktail of prescription drugs.

Medications vary for each person, and it really is trial and error. Some people spend their lives on steroids, which is a fate I have so far been spared. In fact, doctors warned me steroids would make my particular condition worse.

'Skin writing' urticaria, where the slightest touch on your skin causes an allergy-like reaction, formed part of my CIU diagnosis. (c) Urticaria Treatment.

My medication

Instead I was put on Montelukast, a drug for controlling asthma, and a high dose of antihistamines. I've tried several different types of antihistamine, most of them the standard ones you find in pharmacies, such as Loratadine and Cetirizine. I was put on four tablets a day. My consultant was obligated to tell me this is four times the UK-licensing dose, which was followed with an assurance that this is the European licensing-limit so "it should be ok."

It's extremely common for CIU sufferers to need a combination of Montelukast and high-dose antihistamine, because it's often the only thing that works. What choice did I have? I took the tablets and they performed miracles. The hives disappeared as did the angioedema, the painful swelling of deeper tissues which usually accompanies urticaria.

This condition is so distressing that when it finally goes away you are grateful for every day you wake up without it. Being such a random condition, it also induces a fear that it may recur at any time. So even though I've not had any big flare-ups for a while, I still take one antihistamine a day, with more prepped by my side, just in case...

The impact on my running

The downside to taking 10-40mg of antihistamine daily for a year is all too apparent. Even before I discovered this research I noticed an impact on both my ability to recover from runs and my progress.

My weekly mileage is relatively low with three runs a week, but I can hurt all the time. My muscles don't recover, no matter how 'easy' I take it. Whether I fuel up on the right foods, elevate my legs, soak in Epsom salts, wear compression gear and stretch, stretch, stretch, it still hurts.

This obviously has an impact during my runs. Potential injury is etched in my mind and even the simplest run can seem painfully hard. A gentle slope can destroy me and my confidence. It's taken a huge amount of mental courage and determination not to chase my old 9-10min/mile times, and to embrace anything up to a 14min/mile. This is me now, and I'm happy I can run at all.

Like any stubborn runner, my natural course of action is to enter a hilly trail half marathon this Spring. I have no idea what it will bring, but it's a challenge I plan to rise to. Whatever happens, it is guaranteed to hurt. But a big part of being a runner is about embracing whatever challenges you face, and that's something which affects all of us.
Read more about more about the University of Oregon's study on antihistamines and exercise on Science Daily here, and on Runner's World here.


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