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Acid Reflux and Running

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what you need to know about Acid reflux and running Acid Reflux and Running www.runnerclick.com

While some runners only experience acid reflux during pregnancy or after indulging in a plate of spicy food, others are plagued by it. So much so that even the shortest of jaunts tend to end in discomfort. Does this sound familiar? Here’s what’s happening in your body and what you can do to prevent it.

What Exactly Is Acid Reflux?

So what exactly is acid reflux? And what are the differences between acid reflux, heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)?


Heartburn is an extremely common condition that a reported 60 million Americans experience at least once per month. It is characterized by mild to severe pain in the chest area, which can manifest as either a burning or tightening sensation. This sensation usually manifests after ingesting a meal and is often made worse by bending over or lying down.

Heartburn” by Chris Dart. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Note that while the pain caused by heartburn is experienced in the chest area, it is not related to the heart at all. Instead, it originates in the digestive system, and more specifically the esophagus. It can, however, in severe cases, be mistaken for a heart attack. Instances where a heart attack have been mistaken for heartburn have also been recorded.

Heartburn is a symptom of both acid reflux and GERD discussed below.

Acid Reflux

Acid reflux is caused by the sub-optimal functioning of the esophageal sphincter. This muscle, located between the esophagus and the stomach, should ideally close off the esophagus after food has moved through to the stomach. If it doesn’t, acid from the stomach can move up into the esophagus, causing what we refer to as acid reflux. And since the lining of the esophagus is more delicate than that of the stomach, a burning sensation is experienced in the chest area when this happens.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

When an individual experiences acid reflux twice or more per week, or in instances where it causes swelling in the esophagus, this is referred to as GERD. In other words, GERD is a chronic form of acid reflux. Other symptoms of GERD include the following:

  • Heartburn
  • Having trouble swallowing
  • Chest pain
  • A dry cough or hoarseness
  • Belching
  • Regurgitation
  • Asthma

Over the counter medication is oftentimes not effective in relieving the pain and discomfort associated with GERD. Other treatment options, including lifestyle modifications, are, however, availabe. These include:

  • Weight loss
  • Smoking cessation
  • Dietary changes
  • GERD-specific medication
  • Surgery

And while these treatment options might sound drastic, it is vital that GERD, once diagnosed, does not go untreated. Why? Because acid from the stomach may damage the esophagus over time, leading to ulcers, bleeding and scarring. Stomach acid may also alter the cells of the esophagus, leading to Barrett’s esophagus, a condition that increases your risk of developing esopageal cancer. Note that the latter condition is, however, rare.

Tips for Preventing Acid Reflux While Running

But what if, instead of occasionally manifesting after a culinary indulgence, you tend to only experience heartburn or acid reflux while running? Is this preventable? According to Doctor William O. Roberts, research has shown that exercise-related reflux often happens while exercising on an empty stomach. It is therefore vital that you always ingest some form of fuel before heading out. Note that the timing of this pre-run snack or meal is equally important. Exercise-related reflux is often worse shortly after eating, so it might be worth your while to get up earlier, thereby extending the time between fueling and lacing up.

And if you’re running long and need to fuel on the run, here are some additional tips for preventing reflux while doing so:

  • Experiment with different brands of fuel. Try different brands of products until you find one that works for you. Or, if commercially available products don’t do the trick, try fueling naturally with pieces of dried fruit or homemade energy balls.
  • Try different fuel consistencies. In addition to trying different brands, also experiment with different fuel consistencies. Some runners find fuel in liquid form (think gels) easier to digest than solids.
  • Hydrate with water. Shunning acidic beverages in favor of water while running may bring some relief.
  • Experiment with different fueling intervals. Play around with fueling and hydration intervals until you find what works for you. More frequent, smaller doses are oftentimes better than larger servings taken further apart.

Yes, finding an optimal pre- and mid-run fueling strategy can be a frustrating process. But finding something that allows you to run without any discomfort will be more than worth your while.

And what about simply popping a pill pre-run? While some medications may provide relief if taken timeously before a run, there are risks associated with the long-term use of specifically some GERD medications. So be sure to discuss this with your physician.

When to See a Doctor

And while the above tips for preventing reflux on the run are easy to implement on your own, it’s vital that you seek medical attention for your condition if need be. While infrequent and mild heartburn can usually be effectively treated with antacids and small lifestyle adjustments, it is strongly recommended that you seek medical attention in the following instances:

  • If you suffer from heartburn two or more times per week
  • If over the counter medications do not bring any relief.

Better safe than sorry!


Feature image source: Acid Reflux by Practical Cures. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.


  1. William O. Roberts, MD, Don't let this burning sensation ruin your run, Online publication
  2. Dr Cathy Fieseler, Ask the coaches: Reflux/GERD, Online publication
  3. Ashley Lauretta, Your allergies may actually be acid reflux instead, Online publication
  4. Scott Douglas, Man confuses heart attack for acid reflux during Dipsea race, Online publication
  5. T. Kinman & Rachel Nall, What are the differences between heartburn, acid reflux and GERD?, Online publication

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