7 Strategies for Managing Chest Pain During Running

Chest pain when running should be taken seriously. Chest pain can signal a serious heart condition such as a heart attack. It could also be a mild and temporary pain. But because of the high risk, it’s critical you call a doctor immediately if your chest hurts while running.

woman grabbing chest when running
Chest pain when running can be benign or life-threatening.

I struggled with chest pain while running for many months after getting pleurisy (lung inflammation). The pain felt very much like it could be my heart but thankfully it wasn’t. A trip to the doctor and several tests later were able to diagnose me. But I won’t lie—it was scary for a moment.

You don’t want to mess around with chest pain when running. I spoke Allison Greer, PT, DPT, SCS, physical therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery to examine what might cause chest pain while running and how to prevent it in the future.

Understanding the Causes of Chest Pain While Running

If you are wondering why does my chest hurt when I run? It could be from something benign to something life-threatening. Sometimes the symptoms don’t make it obvious as to the severity of what is going on. For example, A bubble feeling in left side of chest could be caused by asthma, indigestion, atrial fibrillation, pleurisy, and more.

According to Greer, “Experiencing chest pain while running is not normal, and could represent a serious medical condition. If you have chest pain while running, you should stop running. You need to consult with a physician to be evaluated and receive medical clearance prior to resuming exertional activities.”

 Based on the type and severity of your symptoms, you should proceed according to the following:

  1. Emergency: call 911
    1. shortness of breath
    2. sharp or intense pain
    3. family history of heart problems
    4. dizziness or light headedness
    5. irregular heart beat
    6. nausea
    7. excessive sweating
  1. Non-emergency: consult with primary care provider

Here are 10 possible causes of chest pain when running.

(This is not an exhaustive list!).

Whitney Heins with hospital bracelet
I went to the ER with chest pain and was diagnosed with pleurisy which took about 8 weeks to resolve. I still get similar chest pain when I get viral infections!

1. Pleurisy

Just as I had, pleurisy which is inflammation of the lung lining and chest tissues, can cause chest pain while running. Pleurisy is more common in those with asthma, in areas with poor air quality, and can be caused by a virus.  Mine was oddly caused by the COVID vaccine! 

2. GERD

Heartburn, indigestion or GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease) can cause chest pain when running. If you ate fatty foods, fried foods, or drank a caffeinated drink, it can cause the stomach to backflow into the esophagus and cause your chest to burn.

3. Lung Issue (Asthma or Upper Respiratory Infection)

Exercise-induced asthma can be common after a viral infection, running in poor air quality, during allergy season, or in the cold. It is caused by bronchoconstriction and is accompanied commonly by being short of breath, coughing, and having chest pain.

Related: Tips for Running with Asthma

4. Chest muscle problem (cramp or strain)

It’s possible to strain the intercostal muscles of your chest which can feel very much like something is wrong with your heart or lungs as it hurts to breathe. It’s also possible for these muscles to cramp, especially if you are dehydrated.

5. Coronary artery disease (angina pectoris)

Coronary artery disease is caused by build-up of cholesterol and other substances in the arteries. When your heart is working hard to get more oxygen, but the tunnels the oxygen flows through is too narrow—it can cause chest pain.

Related: Can You Go Running with Allergies?

6. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is when the wall of the lower left ventricle thickens and your heart can’t send enough blood out to your body. This can cause chest pain, shortness of breath, rapid heart beat or fluttering, and fainting.

Related: Should You Go Running with a Cough?

7. Costochondritis

Costochondritis is inflammation of the cartilage near the breastbone. If you have pain in sternum after workout, it may be caused by repetitive movement in exercises like running. It can also be caused by a virus. Costochondritis is more common in women and the pain is usually worse in certain positions and when breathing.

Related: How to Return to Running After COVID Reinfection

8. Lack of conditioning

 Over-exerting yourself when running because you aren’t well-training can pain in the chest while running. This is especially true if you ran with improper form.

9. Myocarditis

A viral infection such as COVID-19, the flu, or adenovirus can cause inflammation of the heart muscle, called myocarditis. When the heart muscle is inflamed, it can become thick and lead to heart failure.

10. Heart attack

A heart attack is caused by a blocked artery that limits or stops blood flow to your chest. It can start suddenly or start out as a mild pain and gradually get worse. But a telltale sign is that it worsens over time—it doesn’t go away when you stop running, for example.

Some other signs of a heart attack include:

  • Pain in the back, neck, jaw, or arm (more common in women)
  • Pressure or tightness in your chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea

Related: 9 Ways to Avoid Getting Sick

chest pain while running in woman
You can prevent mild chest pain while running.

5 Tips for Preventing Pain In The Chest While Running 

If you have seen your healthcare provider and been cleared for a serious health condition, you may still be nervous to start running again. The good news is a gradual approach to running can allow your body (including your heart!) to strengthen so that chest pain doesn’t stop you in your tracks again.

These tips can help you get back to the roads and get healthier, and stay healthier.  

Download My Free 5k Training Plan

chest pain while running pin
Pin these tips to avoid chest pain while running.

1. Ease into exercise

Start walking first and when 30 minutes of walking feels easy, you can start running.

2. Warm-up

Always walk for about 5-10 minutes before you begin your run to warm up your muscles—and your heart and lungs!

3. Walk

Take walk breaks as you get started. A good run/walk ratio to start with is to run for 1 minute and walk for 1 minute 10 times.

4. Cool-down

Always cool-down too! This is good for your muscles and your heart and lungs (did you guess it right). When you’re done with you run, walk for five to ten minutes to allow your heart rate to return to normal.

5. Keep at it

Aim to run on non-consecutive days 3 times a week. Be consistent. After 2-3 months and when you feel ready, you can add a fourth day of running. A running coach like me can help you safely progress your training!

Related: How to Safely Increase Mileage

chest pain while running pin2
Pin these tips to avoid chest pain while running.

7 Strategies for Managing Chest Pain During a Run

If you struggle with chest pain when running, these tips can help you manage your pain or discomfort.

1. Hydrate

Muscle cramps and strains can be connected to dehydration. Pre-hydrate before running with about 16 ounces of fluids and 400 mg of sodium. Intake this amount every hour of exercise and replenish with at least the same amount after running. It’s also a good idea to keep a water bottle with you at all times so you can hydrate throughout the day.

2. Allow for digestion

Since indigestion can cause heartburn, allow at least two hours for your food to digest before running. Also avoid greasy, fatty, oily, acidic, caffeinated, or fried foods or drinks on days you plan to run.

3. Take an inhaler

If you think you have exercise-induced asthma, run with an inhaler or pre-treat with an inhaler. Run first thing in the morning and avoid running in polluted areas (like by roads and behind traffic).

4. Slow down

If over-exerting yourself is behind your chest pain, slow down. Remember most of your runs should be done at a conversational pace. This means you can easily talk to someone while running. The pace is comfortable and controlled. Learn more about how to run at an easy pace here.

5. Stretch

Doing a mobility routine like this one can loosen your joints and decrease your risk of a muscle strain. After your run, try these stretches to help your body recover. You can specifically stretch your chest by standing in a doorway and opening your arms and falling forward so that either side of the door keeps you upright.

6. Practice good form

Pay attention to your running form. Try not to slouch or hunch your shoulders when running. Run tall with your shoulders over your hips and hips over your feet.

7. Call your doctor

Consult your healthcare provider or cardiologist if your chest pain persists!

What To Do About Chest Pain When Running

If you have chest pain when running, the first thing you should do is call your doctor, go to an urgent care, or if your pain is severe—go to the emergency room! The risk is too high for you not to take your chest pain seriously.

Even if it is not a life-threatening situation, going to a doctor can help you find the root cause so you can be on your way to feeling better. For example, chest pain dehydration could be a simple fix.

Related: Running with an Elevated Heart Rate After COVID

Seek Medical Help if Chest Pain Persists

Remember, I am not a doctor though I did consult one for this article. Be sure to talk to yours about ANY health concern you have.

Monitor Tightness in Your Chest When Exercising

If you notice tightness in chest when exercising here or there, it is still a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional.

It’s always better to be extra safe when your chest hurts during cardio.  There is a chance your heart could be working extra hard and not able to function as it needs to.

Chest pain is not a pain you want to push through when you are running. Be smart.

Follow the Mother Runners for More Health Tips for Women »

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