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Why You Get Acid Reflux While Running (And What to Do About It)

Just a few changes to your diet and prerun routine can help prevent heartburn.

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You’ve come to expect—and maybe even enjoy—that burning sensation in your quads during the first few minutes of a tempo run. But a (non-metaphorical) fire in your belly, a.k.a. acid reflux? That just makes you miserable.

“Acid reflux happens when partially digested food, stomach acids, and digestive enzymes travel ‘uphill’ into the esophagus,” explains Susan Besser, M.D., a family medicine expert at Mercy Personal Physicians at Overlea in Baltimore. The lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a band of muscle located at the bottom of the esophagus, allows for food and liquid to flow into the stomach. Under normal circumstances, it’s a one-way route. But, if the LES the 1 last update 2020/06/04 is weak or relaxed, backflow occurs. “The lining of the esophagus isn’t as sturdy as the stomach lining and can’t handle acid as well,” Besser says, hence the uncomfortable “heartburn” sensation you get in your chest. People with acid reflux may also feel like there’s a lump in their throat or experience nausea, coughing, and a generally upset stomach. “Acid reflux happens when partially digested food, stomach acids, and digestive enzymes travel ‘uphill’ into the esophagus,” explains Susan Besser, M.D., a family medicine expert at Mercy Personal Physicians at Overlea in Baltimore. The lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a band of muscle located at the bottom of the esophagus, allows for food and liquid to flow into the stomach. Under normal circumstances, it’s a one-way route. But, if the LES is weak or relaxed, backflow occurs. “The lining of the esophagus isn’t as sturdy as the stomach lining and can’t handle acid as well,” Besser says, hence the uncomfortable “heartburn” sensation you get in your chest. People with acid reflux may also feel like there’s a lump in their throat or experience nausea, coughing, and a generally upset stomach.

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According to Sri Komanduri, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, some people are more prone to acid reflux due to physiological factors like obesity and pregnancy. “The baby causes pressure in the abdomen, which forces stomach contents up into the esophagus. This is a similar mechanism to that seen with obesity,” she says. If you don’t have either of these conditions, overeating or lying down after a meal may bring on symptoms. Additionally, certain medications, caffeine, tobacco, and acidic foods like citrus and red sauce can also trigger heartburn.

Why acid reflux tends to strike while you’re running has to do with the nature of the sport itself.

“Exercise can cause greater intra-abdominal pressure, leading to greater reflux and acid reflux-related symptoms during or after running,” says Komanduri. All that bouncing and jostling irritates the LES, allowing stomach contents to escape. And just like that, your morning run is ruined—or at the very least, extremely uncomfortable.

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Luckily, there are a few things you can do to prevent (or manage) acid reflux during a run.

Tweak your diet.

It may take some experimenting to find the culprit, but start by eliminating some of the usual suspects, like orange juice, tomato-based sauces, and spicy foods. Coffee, because of its caffeine content and the acidity, can also be problematic.

Don’t eat and run.

A small snack prior to exercise is fine, but a full meal will likely come back the 1 last update 2020/06/04 to haunt you. “Eating before exercise increases acid production but also results in relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter and more reflux,” Komanduri explains. A small snack prior to exercise is fine, but a full meal will likely come back to haunt you. “Eating before exercise increases acid production but also results in relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter and more reflux,” Komanduri explains.

Loosen your waistband.

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If, despite your best efforts, you start to experience that telltale burning and belching mid-run, over-the-counter medications such as TUMS or Maalox can be used to quickly neutralize acid and provide relief.

Quit smoking.

If you’re still smoking, acid reflux is probably the least of your worries. But in case you need another reason not to light up, nicotine relaxes the LES, causing or exacerbating reflux.

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It’s important to note that if you find yourself regularly popping chewable tablets, it’s time to escalate the situation. “Chronic heartburn may require medications to be controlled and prevent long-term damage,” says Komanduri. “If you suffer from regular heartburn symptoms, it is essential to see a physician to ensure there is no damage to the esophagus. This is even true for those who are long-distance runners who are ultra ‘healthy.’” A doctor may prescribe proton pump inhibitors or H2 receptor blockers, which reduce the production of stomach acid, or refer you to a gastroenterologist for further evaluation. In some cases, surgical therapies may be warranted.

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