You know the feeling. You’re running on your favourite trail and you’re just getting into your stride, when suddenly, pain hits you square in the chest, making you double over, breathless.
Could it be a random heart attack? Don’t panic just yet. Although the symptoms might be scary, your chest pain could be a number of issues, ranging from completely non-serious reactions to life-threatening heart problems.
The good news is, chest pain is fairly common among runners, and once you’ve identified the issue you can stop worrying — or know when it’s time to head to seek medical attention. Here are the five most common reasons why your chest could hurt during a run, plus a few pro tips for getting relief.
You’re New To Running
Getting into a fitness regime can be tough on your body, especially if it’s not used to whatever new exercise you’re doing. If you haven’t run much before this, it may be that you are pushing yourself too hard, and working at a level you’re not ready for. Always warm up with a five-minute power walk and then ease your way into a relaxed running pace before you begin doing sprints. A good pace for newbies is having a hard time chatting with a friend during your run, but still able. If you’re huffing and puffing, slow down.
Heavy breathing while running can be painful at first, especially for beginners, but the tension will go away with consistent training. Listen to your body, go at your own pace and ease into it.
Your Chest Muscles Are Cramping Up
Just like any other muscle, the muscles surrounding your rib cage (the “intercostal muscles”) can cramp up. This sharp pain is usually highly localized, which means you can pinpoint exactly where it hurts, and it can often gets worse as you continue to run. Dehydration or a lack of electrolytes can be to blame for this kind of pain. Unlike other muscles, there’s not a lot you can do to strengthen your intercostal muscles, except through regular strength-training routines that dynamically stretch and work these muscles by default. To remedy this kind of chest pain, you’ll want to drink more water, while also changing up your breathing pattern. If you’re inhaling for two steps and exhaling for two steps, try inhaling for two steps and exhaling for three to see if it calms your cramping. If all else fails, take a rest until the cramping stops, and start up again at a slower pace.
You Have Heartburn
Most people don’t realize that running puts a lot of pressure on your digestive system. Increased tension can cause your esophageal sphincter to relax, which can encourage stomach acid to come back up your food pipe, a.k.a, acid reflux. This creates a burning sensation in the upper and central part of the chest, just behind the sternum (breast bone). To ease the burn, refrain from having a heavy meal before a run. If you are going to eat before your jog, avoid anything spicy, fried or caffeinated, as these can aggravate heartburn.
You’re Breathing In Cold Air
Cold air is very dry, and the combination of heat and water in your lungs with cold, outdoor air can trigger chest pain as you inhale and exhale. Thankfully, the sensation tends to go away after a few minutes for people with healthy lungs, although those with asthma or other health issues may struggle more. If you’re running out in the cold and it’s triggering a burning sensation, consider wearing a scarf or facemask to “pre-warm” the air before it gets into your lungs.
You Have A Lung Condition
This is where it gets a little tricky. There are a few different lung issues that can spark pain during running, the most common being asthma. Aside from breathing in cold air, smog, pollution and running in the city can aggravate asthmatics as well. Carrying an inhaler with you on your runs can help with this.. Other, less common issues to be aware of include pneumothorax (a leakage of air into the space between the lungs and the chest wall) and blood clots. Both of these will result in sudden, severe pain and shortness of breath, which doesn’t go away even when you’ve stopped running and have rested up. If this sounds like you, see a doctor immediately.
You Have Heart Complications
Now, the worst-case scenario. The harder you run, the harder your heart has to work to pump blood. Insufficient blood supply can induce chest pain, in a painful condition known as angina. Angina usually feels like a pressing, burning or squeezing pain in the chest, usually under the breastbone, though the pain may spread up toward the throat and into the jaw. Worsening chest pain, heavy sweating, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, significant heart palpitations, and/or dizziness are all indicators that something may be very wrong.
If you feel a pain in your chest, don’t try to just push through it. Stop exercising immediately and follow these tips:
- Signs it’s an emergency: If there’s no obvious cause for the pain, it doesn’t resolve itself quickly, and it’s associated with fainting, lightheadedness, or an irregular heartbeat, or you have a family history of heart disease, you should consider visiting the emergency room immediately.
- Signs you need a check-up: Even if the pain lets up, you should make an appointment with a doctor. He or she will discuss your symptoms with you and evaluate your heart, lung and gastrointestinal health. If the cause of the pain is still not clear, your doctor may refer you to a cardiologist for further evaluation.
The good news is, heart problems contribute to only about 5 per cent of chest pains in young people, but these are the ones no one wants to miss. Whether you’re new to running or a full-time marathoner, chest pains are always cause for concern and deserve prompt medical attention.