Heartburn shortly after eating a spicy burrito is one thing, but in the middle of a sweat session? Come on! Here's what's up and how you can prevent the burning sensation.
If you've ever experienced exercised-induced heartburn, "feel the burn" takes on a whole new meaning thanks to an awful low simmering burn of acid reflux in your chest and throat. Sure, you understand a little heartburn after a big, spicy meal, but during a workout? That just doesn't seem fair.
While some people are more susceptible than others, and not everyone will experience heartburn during exercise, it can rear it's ugly head at the most unexpected times (and there's never a good time!), so here's what you need to know about this pesky side-effect to your regular workout.
Jason Machowsky, MS, RD, is a board certified sports dietician as well as a registered clinical exercise physiologist who has worked with athletes and novice clients alike who have dealt with exercise-related heartburn. Machowsky says that the physiological mechanisms that occur are similar to the classic definitions of GERD and acid reflux, but the catalysts have changed from burrito to burpee. (Try these 4 Burpee Alternatives for an Amazing Home Workout.)
Pressure keeps the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a valve located between the stomach and the esophagus, closed, making sure stomach acid stays where it should, but movement, jostling, some foods and certain body positions can reduce the pressure of the valve, causing some stomach acid to creep into the throat.
Physiological vs. Mechanical Causes
Machowsky says there is a multitude of things that can cause heartburn (exercise-induced or not), but that they all typically fall under one of two categories: physiological or mechanical.
Physiological influences include people who have regularly occurring acid reflux or GERD, as well bring significantly overweight, as that raises your risk of these GI symptoms in general. (Here are The 50 Best Snacks for Weight Loss.)
Bridging the biological and mechanical gap, says Machowsky, is when blood flows away from the gut during high-intensity training in order to provide larger working muscles with adequate energy. This redistribution of blood causes a number of GI distresses like reduced digestion, diarrhea, and nausea. (P.S. This could be the reason Why Some Workouts Make You Feel Like Throwing Up.)
Other mechanical causes are basically due to our exercise of choice. "Running and jostling your body up and down repeatedly, as well as impacted-based activity" can provoke heartburn says Machowsky. "The crouched position on a bike also puts additional stress on the LES," he says.
Eating Habits and Food Choices
No shock here, but the kinds of food you eat, along with when you eat them can make a world of difference when it comes to heartburn (or nausea, constipation, diarrhea, the works.)
"Higher fat and higher fiber foods are more often associated with exercise-related heartburn," says Machowsky. Although fiber is very good for you, it digests slowly, and if you eat a high-fiber meal too soon before a workout, you can become constipated, putting too much pressure on the LES. "Caffeine, chocolate, spicy foods, mint, or any other foods classically associated with GERD, could add to it as well," he says.
His general eating strategy for a smooth and efficient workout? "Make sure you're giving yourself adequate time to digest," he says. "Try to avoid eating significant amounts of food at least two hours before training, especially if you're susceptible to heartburn already." Also, pay attention to carb intake, as unless you're gearing up for a very long workout or an endurance race, you don't need to carb-o-load. Doing so will only back up the flow of digestion. (Looking for long-lasting fuel? Try these 6 All-Natural, Energizing Foods for Endurance Training.)
What You Can Do to Prevent It
Know your body and your current level of training. While even the most highly trained athletes can experience heartburn on the court, field, or locker room, says Machowsky, pushing yourself too hard, too fast can be a recipe for disaster. "If you go too hard, too quick, and there's a big jump in intensity, that can trigger it," he says. "Be careful not to bite off more than you can chew."
If you just can't kick the heartburn, make a checklist. "Take these potential factors and identify if you fall into this bucket," says Machowsky. "Does it happen during Tabata or during a bench press? Identify those things and modify them or adjust them to get it to stop."
The one thing you never want to stop doing, however: exercising. Ironically, regular exercise actually minimizes the risk of getting GERD in the first place as it keeps weight under control, he says. "If you get heartburn, it doesn't mean to stop exercising altogether. The key is making modifications."