After a hard workout this summer, some runners will notice a pungent, strong odor that smells a lot like ammonia fumes. For some reason, that smell is most distinctive after a very, long, hot run or a difficult, long race. When runners are milling around together after a summer race, you can often notice a distinctive odor that smells like it’s from a home-cleaning product.
Could this ammonia-like smell have anything to do with running? And if so, is it dangerous? Or a warning sign that trouble (or an injury) lies ahead?
First, this ammonia smell is—in fact—ammonia. And it is produced every time anyone runs hard. Whether you smell it or not is a different story, but your body produces ammonia on every hard run.
Ammonia is actually a by-product of protein metabolism. When you run hard and long and your body lacks adequate carbohydrates, your body burns protein for fuel. When this is burned, the distinctive ammonia smell presents itself afterward.
The fact that ammonia is produced on every run doesn’t mean the smell is always noticeable afterward. Usually, the smell is only present when there is the carb deficit. This increases the ammonia levels in your muscles and then the ammonia is picked up by your blood and carried to your respiratory system. When this occurs, you can usually smell it. In addition, some of the ammonia will show up in your sweat.
Normally, the smell isn’t anything to worry about. But if it persists run after run, you probably aren’t taking in enough carbohydrates. If you emphasize carbohydrates before, during and after running and the ammonia smell is still around, you should get checked out by a physician.
This isn’t dangerous at all. But it is a not-so-subtle warning from your body that it needs more carbs (rather than more protein) to continue training long and hard this summer. Especially if you, like so many Austinites, are training through the summer for a fall marathon.
The solution is easy: Eat more carbohydrates to fuel your muscles better. If you’re running longer than an hour or two on the weekends for marathon prep, you need to make absolutely certain you’re eating enough carbs before and during the run.
After loading up the night before your long run, simply drink a cold sports drink (which has carbohydrates) prior to the run and every 15-20 minutes while running. Also take energy gels which contain carbs, but don’t take the gels with a sports drink.
If your carbohydrate intake is adequate to fuel your running, the ammonia smell should disappear. Your body will still be producing ammonia, but you probably won’t be able to smell it.