I chalked the initial incident up to unfortunate weather conditions. It was 85 degrees, 80 percent humidity, with a UV index of 6—not ideal for running at all, let alone an attempt at being competitive in a 5K. In the last quarter mile, I suddenly became horribly nauseous, my stomach revolting, liquid surging and burning in my throat.
My photo finish was quite the sight as I gagged my way across the finish line and landed on a nearby patch of grass, dry heaving over and over. People rushed to my side, a cacophony of jumbled voices and hands outstretched with cups of water. But I waved them off, feeling embarrassed that I had an audience while my body was in some unexpected state of rebellion.
“I have low blood pressure,” I gasped. “The heat gets to me sometimes.” I hadn’t yet been diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, and 5Ks were normally the equivalent of a medium workout for me. So my explanation was not grounded in anything other than me trying to excuse my poor showing.
For me, running had always been my most comfortable space. Something I loved and excelled at. I could power through cold weather, hot weather, rain or shine, and the majority of the time I felt great during a race. I had raced competitively as a kid all the way through high school, even medaling at the Penn Relays one year. So when I started consistently feeling sick towards the end of every race regardless of the weather, I began dreading doing the one thing that had always brought me the most stress relief and happiness.
Finally, I was sent by my primary-care doctor for an endoscopy and was officially diagnosed with acid reflux and mild gastritis.
I was thrilled to finally have an answer for what I was feeling, but that was only the beginning of being able to reclaim my body, and my old routine.
GERD is a condition where stomach acid frequently flows back into the esophagus, irritating the lining and causing symptoms like chest pain, trouble swallowing, feeling like there’s a lump in your throat, or icky burning burps. Eitan Rubinstein, M.D., a gastroenterologist affiliated with Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, tells SELF that while most people experience some level of gastroesophageal reflux (GER) over the course of a day, repeated issues (meaning multiple times a week) is when GERD is at play. As SELF reported previously, GERD can cause long-term damage to the esophagus or ulcers affecting the esophagus.
It made total sense that running, or moderate- to high- intensity exercise of any sort, would worsen my symptoms. “Anytime you do anything strenuous, your stomach can tighten up, making contents flow upward, [so] anything can give you reflux if you strain yourself hard enough,” Dr. Rubinstein explains. And, “If you’re breathing hard enough, your lungs are expanding and you can actually draw reflux material into your esophagus.”
And since gravity is a factor in experiencing reflux (for instance, lying down after eating is a know reflux trigger, as the position allows acid to travel up the throat more easily), different athletic activities can exacerbate GERD more than others. Lori Zimmerman, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, tells SELF that she has had teen athlete patients come in complaining of symptoms after practicing gymnastics and cross-country running. Like Dr. Rubinstein, Dr. Zimmerman agrees that, above all, it’s the level of exertion more so than the actual activity. But the general mechanics associated with running and that “bobbing up and down of the body,” as she describes, lends itself to the potential for issues with GERD.