Why Do I Snot So Much When I Work Out? [5 Reasons You May Have a Lot of Phlegm When You Exercise and What To Do About It]

by Charlotte on January 21, 2014 · 11 comments


Let’s be honest: These are disgusting and I’d still eat them. Because they look like jelly beans. Sigh. 

Runners are a strange breed and as such they do lots of stuff you wouldn’t find normal people doing. For instance, they have their own code of hand signs. (Some other day we’ll have to discuss the significance of the one-finger wave, two-finger wave, full-hand wave and head nod. I’m solid on the one-finger salute though so no need to explain that one.) They carry more baggies than a crack dealer. They can identify the type and degree of pronation in toddlers walking. Oh and remember that time Paula Radcliff scooched her shorts to the side and politely defecated right before the finish line of the London Marathon and no one batted an eyelash because anyone who’s ever had “runner’s tummy” felt her pain? (She still won, by the way.)

But by far my fave runner trick is the “farmer blow.” You know, where you hold one nostril shut and then blow as hard as you can and shoot boogers ten feet away? It’s closely related to the ability to hock a loogie so precisely that you can judge wind conditions just from its arc and distance. Runners got mad snot skillz, is what I’m saying. When I first started running, I was hesitant to do something so socially repugnant but I got over myself pretty quickly when I realized how much better I felt after getting that gunk out of my throat! (Still, I have rules: No spitting on sidewalks, no spitting in the general direction of people, no spitting when I’m running with a group unless I know them really well and NO SPITTING IN DRINKING FOUNTAINS BECAUSE GROSS.) But why the need for all that nasal passage clearing?

Today I found myself pondering that as I left the gym today doing my usual post-workout ritual of coughing and hacking up phlegm. For me, it usually only happens after a cardio workout of fairly high intensity – yoga and weight lifting normally don’t have this effect on me – and it has gotten worse since I moved from sea level to 6,000 feet up the side of a mountain. It starts about ten minutes into the workout when my nose starts getting kinda runny and I feel like I need to clear my throat every few minutes (yeah, I’m super fun to stand next to – maybe that’s why I couldn’t make any friends at my old gym?). But the worst hits after the workout is over. I keep a box of Kleenexes in my car so I can blow my nose and then cough up phlegm for the next couple of hours. It’s weird because it really doesn’t feel like it’s coming from my nose or sinuses but more like from my lungs? TMI?? And it’s not a cough like you get with a head cold – it’s pretty minor, consistent and – as they say - very productive. A few hours later I’m back to good, no worse for wear!

It’s a minor annoyance but it’s still annoying so I did what I always do with weird bodily symptoms – I Googled them. Turns out my snottiness is pretty common! Maybe some of you are at this very moment coughing delicately into a tissue and then looking at it to see what color it is? Or just snorking loudly and driving your housemates nuts?? But however you do it, what causes it can be harder to pin down. So in case this ever happens to you or someone you love, I present:

Why do I have so much phlegm when I exercise? 

1. Exercise Induced Asthma. The most common answer I found is a type of asthma that only occurs during cardio exercise. Symptoms include wheezing, cough, chest tightness, unusual fatigue during exercise, shortness of breath beyond what one would normally expect from exercise and, yep, lots of phlegm. The interesting part is that symptoms usually don’t really kick in until the workout is finished, which is consistent with my experience.

Fix it: I’ve actually been asked before if I have EIA by a nurse who saw me trying to recover from doing Tabata sprints and thought I sounded asthmatic. At the time I didn’t really follow up with it as one of the most effective “cures” for EIA is a long, slow warm-up before exercise and then simply increasing your lung capacity by increasing your exercise – both of which I was already doing. Yes, the one thing that heals EIA is the one thing that EIA makes extremely hard to do. Irony is not rain on your wedding day, it’s EIA.

2. Allergies/Environmental irritants. The second most common answer was related to seasonal allergies like hay fever, pollutants in the air like dust or smog, and/or cold, dry weather. Also listed? Living at a higher altitude. I can get mild seasonal allergies and the dry winter air also fits so this makes sense too.

Fix it: To help this, its generally recommended to workout in a more temperate environment and take allergy meds. They also recommend not exercising outside where pollutants are more prevalent in the air. Which… eh. I can’t control my gym environment and I’m not taking meds to deal with some phlegm that only bothers me for a couple of hours. Besides antihistamines make me crazy hyper and paranoid. Also, I like exercising outside and if I pay for that in snot then at least I am well skilled in the Farmer Blow.

3. Underlying illness. Hey, did you know if you work out while you have pneumonia or bronchitis that it might make you cough more? I’m kidding a little bit but if you recall I’ve actually done exactly that, so yeah, consider this your PSA: Don’t work out if your lungs are full of germs and gunk. Other illness ranging from the benign like head colds to the life-threatening like lung cancer and cystic fibrosis can also make you cough up a lot of junk.

Fix it: Obviously the cure is to get proper treatment and then rest and recover from your illness. And I was just going to write that I’m 35 so I’d probably know by now if I have cystic fibrosis but apparently it’s not unheard of to get diagnosed as an adult, as evidenced by this article in the news today! But I still don’t think I have CF. Finally becoming reasonable or just bumped up against the limit of my hypochondria? You choose!

4. Dairy. One of the more interesting causes of workout phlegm I found was dairy. Lots of people report personal experiences of removing dairy, particularly cow’s milk, from their diet for other reasons and suddenly finding themselves snot-free! Since I already don’t really eat dairy because I’m lactose intolerant this isn’t my problem but I still find it really interesting. Apparently some scientists think it’s a mild allergic reaction to the milk proteins (as opposed to the lactose) that causes people’s nasal passages to swell!

Fix it: Try eliminating dairy. If your phlegm clears up, you have your answer! And stop tongue kissing cows.

5. Pulmonary edema. Pulmonary edema is simply fluid in your lungs. There are many things that can cause this to happen including some illnesses, congestive heart failure and – I swear I’m not making this up – exercising at high altitudes. The symptoms are wide ranging but include a feeling of weight on your chest, especially when lying down, difficult breathing (duh), fatigue during exercise and heart problems. The Mayo Clinic adds that if you start to cough up “pink, frothy sputum”*, taste iron in your mouth and start to turn blue or gray you should go to the hospital immediately.

Fix it: If it’s chronic and related to an underlying condition, treat the condition. If it’s an acute attack, go to the hospital immediately. Basically see a doctor no matter what if you think you have this problem.

Any of you get all phlegm-y after a tough workout? Any other causes for this that you know of? Any of you have Exercise Induced Asthma – has an inhaler been helpful to you? And by a show of hands: How many of you can hawk a loogie or farmer blow and hit a target??

*I’ve actually seen this in action when I pulled a drowning toddler out of a lake. When I dropped the kid on the sand to start rescue breathing he started vomiting red, frothy stuff. FREAKED ME THE HECK OUT. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: I’m really not the person you want in an emergency situation. But he’s okay now so everything’s good.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Darwin January 22, 2014 at 12:13 am

I had asthma…past tense…and I know that I do not anymore because in 2008, I signed on for a pharmaceutical study on a new asthma medication at the local university, and the first phase of the study was to measure how bad you asthma was. So they had to force an asthmatic reaction.

She tried several times to force an asthmatic reaction in me…went through all of the study parameters…then exceeded the parameters…and…nothing.

I had been taking my asthma medication faithfully and running and doing other cardio and somehow the combination resulted in no more symptoms.

I have not had to use the medication since. And I run…a lot.

And use my heavy bag.

My cardio ALSO increases when I think about dating again…but that is more due to panic.

Interesting though…I had a thing where it felt like my lungs were filling up with fluid a few years before that test…while I ran…and after…but being more or less aware…I realized that my sinuses were draining down the back of my throat in a steady trickle…and it not only interfered with my breathing but also almost choked me out with phlegm in my lower throat-upper chest.

I had to cough deep and harsh to get it all out and it felt for a time like a lung would come with it. And it felt like I threw up…coughing – gagging…then dry heaves to get the last of the gunk out.

And the more I coughed it all out…the more it seemed to produce.

I went to my doctor and she gave me prescription…that DRAINED my sinuses more.

I went back and said…”What I need is something that STOPS my sinuses from draining. My sinuses are producing WAY TOO much…FAR more than is normal.”

She had nothing.

I continued to run…following my pattern…much like yours Charlotte of “no spitting on sidewalk” “no spitting in general direction of people” “no spitting in groups” but…

…running in a park and people in nearby houses are coming outside to see what is going on, because the coughing choking dry heaves become so LOUD they think they may have to dial 911 to come pick up the body….

And again…the more I spit it out…the more was produced.


…I stopped spitting…swallowed the phlegm…less and less was produced and I do not have the problem anymore.

Have not had it for years.

Not sure that there is ANYTHING scientifically valid in my approach…but it worked.

Maybe it will help you if you swallow?


Lydia January 22, 2014 at 3:35 am

Just to be pedantic, Paula Radcliffe did a wee, not a poo.. :)


Charlotte January 23, 2014 at 12:21 am

Interesting! I will say that I have no first-hand knowledge of her bathroom habits but did you read the story I linked to? Her interview with the UK Telegraph made it sound like she was pretty clearly talking about pooping although maybe I’m misinterpreting it. She kept talking about stomach cramps… but perhaps some people cramp to pee too? Either way I don’t think at all less of her – I think she’s amazing and I’d have done the same in her situation!


Stephanie @ Whole Health Dork January 22, 2014 at 5:58 am

I’ve gone through boughts of having EIA. It was never really that bad (though I was given an inhaler for it in eighth grade) and just overall random. I thought I had kicked it, but with the colder weather back, I’m finding I’m having the problem again. It only shows up when it’s cold, so perhaps it’s exercising-in-the-cold-induced asthma?


Naomi/Dragonmamma January 22, 2014 at 6:04 am

Emphatic yes on dairy causing phlegm. Bad enough that it actually causes me to stay away from dairy. (Yogurt and kefir are OK.)


Jess January 22, 2014 at 9:23 am

I definitely get super phlemy when I exercise outside. Including when I am walking a mile carrying my 3 yo. I’ve often wondered if it was EIA vs allergens. Some day I will figure it out.


Amanda January 22, 2014 at 10:59 am

I thoroughly judge people who do this in normal weather. It’s just not nice, it’s not polite, and it’s gross, and unless you’re about to win the Olympics or a million dollars, you have time to go to a trash can (HOLD IT IN).

But I was in Minnesota (Charlotte, you should understand this), running in -10F with a ski mask on, and my nose was full of water. Just clear watery gunky stuff.

So I shamefully looked around for cars and people, and upon seeing none, lifted up my ski mask and blew my nose.

And wiped it on my leggings.

The end.


Sue January 22, 2014 at 11:49 am

I don’t get phlegmy, but have a constant need to blow my nose throughout my runs (can’t do farmer’s blows-tried it, just can’t do it). I would estimate that I blow my nose once every 2 minutes or so, more if it is cold. Not fun! Thanks for the info on pulmonary edema. I have had an issue with feeling like I have a weight on my chest, worse when I am lying down, plus fatigue. The doc thinks it is due to pulling a muscle in my rib cage, but I think it may be more than that-see you are not the only hypochondriac in the bunch :) I’ll go back and have them check me again.


Desiree January 22, 2014 at 12:46 pm

I was diagnosed with asthma while living in Colorado, it seemed to come from years of allergy suffering. The major signs were the coughing (even when I had not been working out) and phlegm. I went to National Jewish for along time (I mention this since you are now in Colorado, and it is rated one of the top asthma hospitals in the country). I was on a steroid inhaler and albuterol for exercising for a while (as well as allergy shots to help with the underlying problem), but once I started running I was able to stop using the steroid inhaler and just used the albuterol. I then improved enough in my lung function that I was only using it for extremely vigorous exercise and/or when there was a significant temperature difference between inside and outside. High altitude did seem to be a significant trigger as now I am living at sea level again and the only time asthma symptoms have popped up was this last spring when I went through the worst allergy season in over a decade. Lastly, I use the NelMed Sinus Rinse before I run and that does seem to help a lot with runny nose issues since it clears everything out, I feel like I am starting with a clean slate so to speak. The thing with albuterol is it can produce similar symptoms to having a dose of caffeine which I loved since it helped with my energy levels while running, but might not be something you want to deal with.


Darwin January 22, 2014 at 11:46 pm


I an certain that TODDLER would disagree with you…because YOU are EXACTLY the person he wanted in THAT emergency situation.

Hard to argue with the facts…YOU saved his life!


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