Whether you are new to running or have been doing it for a long time, there is a pretty good chance you’ve experienced it at least once – chest pains during a run. The good news is that it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a heart issue, but it is something that shouldn’t be ignored. Chest pain when running can be caused by many different issues, ranging from minor to quite serious.
Possible Causes of Chest Pains While Running
Below are the most common issues and whether you should seek medical attention or not.
1. You’re an Inexperienced Runner
If you have just started running, or are just coming back to it after a long break, your body likely isn’t accustomed to the stresses of running yet. This is especially true if you are working out at higher intensities, or if you are the type of runner that skips their warmup and gets right into the workout.
Often this can lead to some discomfort in the chest, but it should go away as you become fitter. If you have any underlying medical issues, you should check with your doctor before beginning any new training regimen.
2. Cramping Chest Muscles
Everyone at some point has experienced a muscle cramp, quite often in a muscle in the legs. Your ribcage is surrounded by muscles, and they can often cramp when you are out running. Dehydration and electrolyte depletion have long been thought to be the cause of these cramps.
Breathing patterns can also be known to cause these cramps. If you always inhale and exhale with the same footstrike (For example, you always inhale/exhale every third step) you are breathing in a symmetrical rhythm, and this can often cause some cramping in the chest as well. Try to change up your breathing pattern to see if that changes the chest pain location or intensity at all.
Many newer runners don’t realize the stress that running puts on the digestive system, especially as you step up your mileage and begin to take in calories mid-run. Most of the blood in your body is being directed to your extremities to keep you running, so your stomach has to work in less-than-ideal scenarios. This can often lead to heartburn, which when running can lead to some discomfort in the chest.
This can also be caused by eating a heavy meal before a run, or by eating foods that likely won’t sit well, such as spicy or fried foods. Trying different pre-run meals is a great way to discover what works best for your body.
4. Musculoskeletal Pain
Sharp pain that comes on suddenly and then disappears just as quickly is most likely to be caused by muscular, joint, or skeletal pain. Most often these types of pain don’t repeat themselves very frequently, so they can be quite hard to describe and diagnose.
5. Supraventricular Tachycardia (SVT)
Supraventricular Tachycardia is an arrhythmia that can cause chest discomfort, shortness of breath, and/or palpitations. Often, it can happen without symptoms, other than an elevated heart rate. SVT is usually not something doctors worry too much about unless breathing exercises won’t bring it under control. In that case, they may prescribe a medication to slow your heart rate.
6. Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM)
Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy is a condition in which the heart muscle thickens, making it more difficult for the heart to pump blood. It usually occurs in the left ventricle, which is the side responsible for pumping oxygen-rich blood into the body. HCM can cause chest pain, accompanied by heart palpitations and shortness of breath, while others may not experience any symptoms.
HCM is pretty uncommon, and you should see a doctor to discuss the risk factors and possible medications to relax the heart muscles.
While we still aren’t sure of the long-term effects of Covid-19 on runners, we do know that the effects can be much worse when running. Even if you have minimal symptoms when resting, it can cause chest pain, tightness, and breathlessness when running.
If you have contracted Covid-19, it is best to rest until you are back to 100% before resuming your training, especially if you are doing high-intensity exercises.
Costochondritis is an inflammation of the cartilage by the breastbone, often caused by repetitive, high-impact activities like running. Costochondritis can cause pain in the chest and is most common in women. It generally resolves itself, but it can still be a good idea to get checked out by a medical professional just to ensure that is all it is.
Pleurisy is a condition that can be caused by running outside in the cold air, or in poor quality air. It is an inflammation of the tissue linings of the lungs and chest. Symptoms of pleurisy include chest pain when running, a painful cough, and difficulty breathing.
Runners with asthma, or who have had a recent respiratory infection are at a greater risk of getting pleurisy, and should carefully monitor air quality and air temperature to help avoid contracting it.
10. Exercise-Induced Bronchospasm (EIB)
Exercise-induced bronchospasm is the most common cause of chest pain during and after exercising. It is a spasm in the lungs’ small airways, causing severe chest pains, and making breathing difficult. EIB can be brought on by cold or dry air, air pollution, or by strong fumes.
It is recommended you see a pulmonologist for a test if you believe you may have EIB.
11. Asthma or Other Pulmonary Issues
If you are a runner with asthma, you know how quickly an exercise-induced asthma attack can come on. Often, they can begin or end with some chest pain or discomfort. A rescue inhaler can be used to stop the attack if you have one on hand. Always consult with your doctor regarding your asthma before beginning any running regimen.
Pulmonary embolism, although rare, can happen in runners and will also result in immediate chest pain. Caused by a blood clot in an artery that supplies the lungs with blood, it can oftentimes cause it to be mistaken as a heart attack at first, depending on the location of the pain.
Even rarer, but still possible, is pneumothorax (collapsed lung). This is when air escapes from the lungs, into the space between the lungs and the chest wall. Generally, a collision or fall is required to cause pneumothorax, but it can often be caused by an unknown health issue. Smokers are also at a much higher risk of suffering from pneumothorax. If you have a collapsed lung, seek medical attention to decide the best course of action for recovery.
Angina is caused when your coronary arteries contract, creating an insufficient blood supply to your heart. It can often feel like a heart attack at first, as it can cause pressure in the chest, jaw, or left arm. The symptoms should go away after a few minutes of rest, as the heart requires less oxygen-rich blood as your heart rate returns to normal.
In athletes 35 years of age and older, angina is the most common cardiac cause of chest pain. If you have experienced angina, you should book an appointment with your doctor to go over the symptoms as it can often be a warning sign of more serious heart problems farther down the road.
13. Heart Attack
Physical strain can cause a heart attack, especially if you have an underlying health issue. If you have any of the following issues while running, stop and seek immediate medical attention; Worsening chest pain, pain in the jaw, back, or left arm area, heavy sweating, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, palpitations, and/or dizziness that worsen with high-intensity exercise.
While a few of the symptoms of a heart attack on their own can be other minor things already mentioned above, a heart attack will usually bring on multiple symptoms, and often quite quickly.
Even if the symptoms end up going away when you stop running, you should still be checked by a medical professional as soon as possible. Often times people who suffer massive heart attacks had a much smaller heart attack previously that they either ignored or didn’t notice. Taking the right precautions at the first sign of heart problems can potentially save your life.
Also Read: Does Running Tone Your Body?
How Likely Is a Runner to Suffer Cardiac Arrest While Running?
While it is extremely unlikely, a runner can suffer from sudden cardiac arrest during a run, causing the heart to stop beating. It affects roughly 0.54 out of every 10,000 runners (0.0054%) participating in half and full marathons. (71 percent in full marathons, and 29 percent in half marathons). This number, it should be noted, only uses race data, so any episodes of cardiac arrest suffered in training aren’t included in this statistic.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How do I reduce chest pain when running?
If you are experiencing chest pain over and over while running (and you’ve been checked out by the doctor to make sure it is nothing serious), there are a few things you can do to reduce the discomfort. First, make sure you are properly warmed up before going out, and ensure you are dressed warmly enough. Try to run at a steady pace instead of speeding up and slowing down abruptly. Lastly, focus on your breathing to endure you are taking deep, even breaths.
Q: Does running prevent heart attacks?
Contrary to what a lot of people believe, running doesn’t actually prevent heart attacks, it only lowers the risk of having one. Your diet has a much greater impact on the health of your heart, so having a healthy heart starts in the kitchen. Despite what some people will tell you, you can’t outrun a bad diet.
Q: Can long-distance running be bad for your heart?
While recent studies have shown the potential for plaque buildup and scarring in the heart of some long-distance runners, that doesn’t mean you should stop running. Researchers believe that if a runner does get some form of heart disease, their hearts are much better equipped to deal with it when compared to a non-runner. A bit of scarring from being active is much better than developing heart disease from being sedimentary.
Q: If I only get random chest pain once in a while, is it worth going to the doctor?
If you are able to, it is absolutely worth getting any chest pain checked out. Even if it is nothing major, just having a doctor confirm that your heart is healthy is worth making the appointment. Worst case scenario, they do find something wrong, which could potentially save your life by catching it early. Regardless, it never hurts to have your heart health checked out regularly.
Getting chest pains while out for a run can be frightening, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it is something serious. It is most likely not anything serious, but any chest pain should be checked out by a trained professional before a minor problem can turn into something much worse.
I’m Ramona, a specialist in Crossfit and functional training. I am passionate about helping people reach their fitness goals, and I have been actively involved in the CrossFit community for over eight years. I’ve trained with some of the best coaches in the world, traveled to many different countries to learn from different experts, and completed numerous certification courses. Regardless of your fitness goals, I am committed to helping you achieve them through comprehensive, challenging, and effective workouts tailored to your lifestyle.