Coughing After Exercise: Not Always Exercise-Induced Asthma

I attended an instructor-training certification this weekend put on by physical therapist and internationally-recognized author and fitness expert Martin Rooney(1).

As part of the certification we were performing a circuit using battle ropes, dynamax med-ball slams, kettlebell swings and ladder-mobility work (4 stations). The circuit required a 1:1 work to rest ratio and each work period was :60. What this means is we did our station as hard as we could for 60 seconds and then rested for 60 seconds before beginning the next station.

Round 1 was as described above. Round 2 was 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off at each station. Grand total amount of active work was “only” six minutes. Doesn’t sound like much maybe but it kicked our asses.

There’s a difference between performing an exercise for 60 seconds and performing an exercise for 60 seconds as hard as you can.

After the practical work was done it was time to go back to the classroom for more lecture-listen work. Well I have to say “Let the coughing begin!” Wow, I don’t have a memory of me coughing like I was after this exercise session. I won’t say I worked harder in that session than I ever have. No, I’ve worked that hard many times before. And be there no mistake – it WAS hard! But I’ve been training 29 years and I’ve done a LOT of hard workouts over those years. But the coughing! And it wasn’t just me.

As the 20 of we students got back to our tables and chairs there were 8-10 of us who were coughing so much that we were laughing. Martin was laughing and could barely conduct the lecture because we kept disrupting the class with our coughing. That’s how ridiculous our coughing became.

Here’s what it felt like to me. I had no wheezing, tightness of chest, shortness of breath. In fact I felt recovered from the circuit session and ready to go! But in my lower-throat, upper-chest area I felt a tickle and then could feel the “percolation” of phlegm/mucus being created. After 10-15 minutes of coughing symphony among us I really tried willing my cough to stop. It got to the point where I thought “Dude, come on, just friggin stop coughing – enough is enough!” And for a minute or two I could will my cough to stop. But then the tickle would become too much and the mucus just had to be cleared and here comes more coughing. This went on for probably 30 minutes. Within our first hour back into class though we had all settled down and the coughing was essentially gone for all of us.

So what the hell was that? Why did I and 8-10 other trainers go into a coughing attack after one hard training session? Are we all suffering from exercise-induced asthma? I’m going to say no and I personally have never had asthma of any kind, exercise or any other.

There was mention in the class of what’s called “the lactic acid cough.” I did some brief perusing online and really couldn’t find a decent well-grounded article to support that. If anyone reads this and can validate the science between lactic acid and coughing please let me know.

If you search “coughing after exercise” online you’ll find tons of posts and articles about exercise-induced asthma which is now called exercise-induced bronchospasm (2). According to the Mayo Clinic symptoms include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness or pain, fatigue during exercise and poor athletic performance. The only symptom I had was coughing. I had no wheezing, shortness of breath or anything else on the exercise-induced bronchospasm list. So what the hell was it?

A little more digging will bring up what runners and cyclists call “pursuiter’s cough” or “track hack.” In the end this empirically and personally seems to describe our coughing to a “T.”

According to a post maintained by the University of Iowa they state …

“…for some people, vigorous physical activity (e.g. running) can trigger slight respiratory irritations. When a person exercises vigorously, he or she is breathing faster and processing more oxygen than when at rest. When someone is breathing normally at rest, the air is moistened and warmed through the nasal passage before entering the lungs. The nasal passage also catches debris that is inhaled (e.g. dust). However, when people exercise, they tend to breathe air through their mouth more than through their nose, which can cause dry, cool, and particle-filled air to go directly to the lungs, which can cause respiratory irritation that leads to coughing. Coughing is the body’s natural response to clear the airway of unwanted debris, including mucus build-up. However, coughing and mucus buildup from respiratory irritations usually discontinue shortly after exercise. (3)”

And, I believe, there you have it. Mystery solved. The air we were breathing was cool and dry for sure. We were breathing very hard and through our mouths mostly for sure. I can’t say if the air was full of dust and God knows what but I wouldn’t rule that out either.

Last I just want to say that if you’re a fitness trainer of any kind and you get the opportunity to take a two-day instructor course with Martin Rooney? Do it! He talks the talk and walks the walk. He’s a dynamic speaker, interesting, knowledgeable as hell and you’ll get more than your money’s worth. It takes a lot these days for me to be impressed. Rooney is impressive.


1. See also