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Running Doc: What causes that strong ammonia odor?


Dear Running Doc:

I notice that after I speed walk on the treadmill, even for only 30 minutes, my hair has a very strong ammonia odor. What causes that?

— Doris M. Long Beach, CA.

Thanks Doris. This is a very frequent question I hear in my office. It is an important question and deserves a complete answer.

What is ammonia and where does it come from?

Ammonia (chemical term is NH3) is a nitrogen breakdown product of amino acids in the body. Amino acids are the building blocks to make proteins in the body. If your body turn to breaking down amino acids for energy (instead of using carbohydrate and/or fat), the nitrogen atom is chemically stripped off the amino acid molecule (which is then converted to glucose fuel) and processes the nitrogen in the kidneys and forms urea for excretion. If your kidneys cannot handle the load of urea, the nitrogen is excreted in your sweat as ammonia.

Tips from running doc. (New York Daily News file photo)

How can I prevent the smell?

The best way is to be sure you have enough carbohydrate fuel for your exercise. Those that “eliminate” carbs from their diet are a set up for “ammonia sweat. A good pre-workout meal usually does the trick. Also be sure to drink for thirst. Adequate fluid intake makes excretion easier.

So the next time you smell ammonia, don’t worry that all your muscle protein is breaking down or that you are doomed to have smelly sweat forever. Look at what you eat before you exercise, add more carbs and fat and when you finish exercising, have some carbs and fat to replenish what you have used and some protein to help replace the amino acids used for energy and to make your sweat smelly!


Enjoy the Ride!

Lewis G. Maharam, MD, FACSM is one of the world’s most extensively credentialed and well-known sports health experts. Better known as Running Doc™, Maharam is author of Running Doc’s Guide to Healthy Running and past medical director of the NYC Marathon and Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series. He is also past president of the New York Chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine. Learn more at

Want your question answered in this column? Write to running doc at?[email protected].