Why can I taste ammonia after intense exercise?

USA Pro Challenge, neutral start, Denver Colorado, 2013 by Reid Neureiter, on Flickr After a long, hard work out, it will be difficult not to notice the changes that happen to your body – increased heart rate, shortness of breath as well as the obvious, a bucket load of sweat!
However, what you may also notice is a strong, pungent ammonia-like smell (don’t worry, its not just you, most people can smell like this after a long run or cycle ride!)

This ammonia-like smell is in fact caused by ammonia (surprise, surprise!), and can be produced after any grueling workout. Ammonia smells like a stinky cat box and is a by-product of protein breakdown. During an intense workout, your body can run out of its normal supply of fuel – usually carbohydrates (‘carbs’). So, rather than needing to stop mid-sprint and cram loads of energy bars in, the body will use the body’s protein as an alternative source of fuel (pretty crafty!). And because protein is ‘burned’, an ammonia smell presents itself afterwards.

Of course, using your body’s protein isn’t a great long term source of muscle fuel because this protein is taken from internal organs and the muscles themselves. Your body tries to conserve its organs and muscles, and will only use protein when it’s absolutely necessary. So usually the smell will only appear when there is a carbohydrate deficit (or if the exercise is just so intense that your body needs extra fuel for the final push). The increase in ammonia in your muscles will be carried away by your blood and transported to your lungs and excreted (mostly in your sweat), hence that lovely, distinct smell!

In order to try and reduce the ammonia produced, one tip is to make sure you eat enough before engaging in intense exercise. Carbohydrate-rich foods (‘carbs’) such as breads, pasta, potatoes are a good source of fuel that muscles can easily use.

Answer By Chloe Westley

Image Source: USA Pro Challenge, neutral start, Denver Colorado, 2013 by Reid Neureiter, on Flickr

Article by Chloe Westley

August 29, 2014

Based in Manchester, UK, Chloe spends most of her time getting up close and personal with a zippy bit of kit called a Raman spectrometer. In between doing some high-brow research as part of a PhD, she follows tennis, cricket and Man United (unfortunately) and loves watching Suits, The Big Bang theory and Breaking Bad (obviously!).


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One thought on “Why can I taste ammonia after intense exercise?”

  1. Hmmm… I LOVE carbs! In fact, unfortunately I know I consume way more carbs than proteins on a regular basis, so if the ammonia smell really is proteins being used as fuel, then I’m thoroughly confused, considering the sheer amount of carbs I ingest in proportion to proteins. I always ONLY smell this ammonia smell (in my nose by the way, NOT my sweat) at the tail end of a vigorous cardio session up to about 15 minutes afterwards. I’m not fat (or overly skinny, either) and I have zero medical conditions. I’ve experienced this thing with the ammonia smell for years now and it’s utterly perplexing. I drink tons of water during my workouts, but definitely nowhere near what I should throughout a regular day.

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