The familiar burn of stinging nettles after a trail run means that it is spring/summer and many of the paths that we love to explore are overgrown with these nuisance plants. We take a look at the facts about stinging nettles and running, why it hurts so much, and what you can do if stung (although we can’t guarantee that they will have the desired result).
EDIT – updated on 17/09/23 after a particularly nasty brush with about eleventy billion stingers.
What Are Stinging Nettles?
Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are a common, perennial plant found in many parts of the world. While they may look like innocent plants, they have a hidden anatomy that makes them the perfect weapon. Their leaves and stems are covered in tiny, hair-like structures called trichomes, which are responsible for the infamous sting. Each trichome is made up of a hollow, needle-like structure that acts like a tiny syringe. When these hairs come into contact with skin, they break off and release a mixture of chemicals, including histamines and formic acid. This toxic concoction causes a stinging sensation, redness, and inflammation. The anatomy of stinging nettles is a testament to their ability to protect themselves from threats and ensure their survival.
When and Where Do They Grow?
They are a member of the nettle family (Urticaceae), which includes over 500 species of plants found worldwide. Nettles are typically found in moist, shady areas, such as forests, woodlands, and stream banks. They can grow up to 6 feet tall and have heart-shaped leaves with serrated edges.
Stinging nettles are at their most potent in the spring when they are first growing. The stinging hairs are also more easily released when the plant is wet, so it is best to avoid contact with nettles after it rains.
Update – they are just as potent in September as we write this on 17/09/23 after a particularly brutal run in the rain which involved running through hundreds of them!
Can You Become Immune to Their Sting?
This was a question I asked recently while on a particularly overgrown trail run. The thought just crossed my mind because I am so used to getting stung now I actually don’t feel it as much as I used to. Apparently though you can’t become immune to the stings. Edit – 3 months later and I take this previous statement back!
The stinging hairs of nettles contain formic acid, which is a chemical that can irritate the skin and cause a burning sensation. The severity of the sting can vary depending on the individual and the amount of formic acid that is released. However, it is not possible to develop an immunity to the sting of a nettle.
Also, it seems that the severity of the sting can also depend on the individual. Some people are more sensitive to the stinging hairs than others. The sting can cause a burning, itching sensation that can last for several hours. In some cases, it can also cause swelling, redness, and blisters.
My own personal experience for a long time was that nettles didn’t really bother me – I could run through them without issue. Hence why I thought I had become immune. Then all of a sudden, and I refer to today, I seem to have taken against them. this next photo was me after a run. Hours later, as I type this, my legs are zinging all over! I wonder if it is because they have had all summer to grow and become evil? Anyway, compression socks for me on my next run – trust me – these Danish Endurance socks are fabulous!
The Good Thing About Stinging Nettles
Yes, it may not seem like it but there are actually benefits to these plants that cause us some much discomfort.
Stinging nettles have been used for centuries for their medicinal properties. They are a good source of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as minerals such as iron, calcium, and magnesium. Nettles have also been shown to have anti-inflammatory, diuretic, and antihistamine properties.
Today, stinging nettles are still used in herbal medicine to treat a variety of conditions, including allergies, arthritis, high blood pressure, and kidney problems. They are also used as a natural fertiliser and insect repellent.
Stinging Nettle Myths
The belief that dock leaves help nettle stings is a folk remedy that has been passed down for centuries. However, there is no scientific evidence to support this claim. In fact, some studies have shown that dock leaves may actually make the sting worse. I tested this theory on my latest miserable, nettle filled run where there were doc leaves in abundance! It doesn’t work.
Other myths include that they can kill you ( they can’t as they are not poisonous), that they cause cancers, make you infertile and make you hallucinate. All untrue!
How to Avoid Nettles
Stinging nettles and running seem to be something that is hard to avoid however, there are a few steps you can take:
- Wear long pants and sleeves when hiking or working in areas where stinging nettles are common – compression socks are also helpful
- Use a walking stick to clear away nettles from your path or poles if you use them (if you are out for a trail run the chances are you will have neither)
- Be careful when picking wild plants, as stinging nettles can be mistaken for other, non-stinging plants.
What Should You Do if You Are Stung?
If you do get stung by a nettle, there are a few things you can do to relieve the pain and itching:
- Wash the area with soap and water.
- Apply a cold compress or calamine lotion.
- Take an over-the-counter antihistamine.
- If the pain and itching are severe, see a doctor.
Stinging nettles and running are not the best combo but, if like us, you love a trail run and can’t help but explore new paths and trails, the chances are you are going to encounter them at some point. Sometimes they are easy to avoid, run around and jump over, at other times you just have to suck it up and follow the advice above.