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Don’t “Drink” the Air- A Look at Aerophagia and Running

Aerophagia, or swallowing air, typically occurs throughout the course of performing normal, everyday activities such as: eating, exercising, talking, etc. But recently, I was contemplating how something as simple as swallowing air might inhibit an athlete’s performance while running.

According to the Mayo Clinic, bloating, burping and passing gas are normal reactions to a) swallowing air or b) the breakdown of food via digestion. But can swallowing too much air while running have negative effects on an athlete’s performance?

While gastrointestinal (GI) distress is extremely common in runners, perhaps aerophagia plays a key role as well. In this article, I suggest that GI distress often occurs (though not always) immediately following a strenuous workout while aerophagia tends to affect runners more during their workouts.

*HYPOTHESIS: Swallowing air frequently throughout the course of a 30+ minute run DOES cause gastrointestinal distress, particularly if the following conditions are present:

  • Running at a “harder” pace
  • Running in humid and/or hot weather
  • Running while dehydrated
  • Running while tired

Of course, there may be more factors than what I have suggested above, but based on my own personal experience, I observed that I was swallowing more air during my runs when I was slightly fatigued and dehydrated. Concurrently, I also noticed that on days where I ran at a more challenging pace, the very act of swallowing air while running almost felt like it was taking effort away from my workout. But was I really wasting energy by swallowing more air, or was I simply being paranoid?

As it turns out, the very act of swallowing is a complex process. Swallowing, also known as deglutition, goes through several phases:

  1. Oral
  2. Pharyngeal
  3. Esophageal

Each of the above phases involves a variety of neuromuscular actions, some of which are voluntary (oral phase) and some of which our bodies perform automatically (pharyngeal and esophageal phases). Because of how complex the process is, some researchers claim that this may also be the reason why there are so many problems surrounding gastrointestinal distress. But what can be done to prevent excessive swallowing of air while running or performing in other intense cardiovascular activities? Do we simply tell ourselves not to swallow air?

Chances are that most people fail to realize or pay attention to something as small and seemingly insignificant as how much air they are swallowing while running, but perhaps those who suffer from unusually high bouts of GI distress both during and after exercise will find that this merits a closer look. It should be noted that by “swallowing air,” I am referring to the act of physically swallowing while running, which is not to be confused with breathing through the mouth.*

Perform Your Own Case Study

The next time you go for a run, try to tune in to how you are breathing. Most runners will run with their mouths slightly open; however you should attempt (when possible) to focus on taking air in through your nose, expelling air out through the mouth.

An Exercise

In the book, Indian Running, author, Peter Nabokov, describes a Native American running exercise that teaches runners how to strengthen their breathing. Taking in a mouthful of water (without swallowing), runners would sprint for set distances, holding the water in their mouths. In high school, we performed a similar exercise, which we referred to as “no breaths”. The idea was to hold your breath while you sprinted short distances in an effort to help build up your lung capacity. But it also helped to train us more to breathe through our noses when possible versus our mouths.

Conclusions

How often does a professional runner swallow air while running? If so, do they typically tend to be mouth-breathers; or do they breathe more through their noses? Does swallowing too frequently during cardiovascular exercise inhibit one’s overall performance; or are the effects nondescript?

While it may be difficult to answer these questions on a large scale, my experience has shown that swallowing too frequently while running DOES inhibit my performance, resulting in a slight decrease in pace immediately prior to and during the act itself. The triggers, for me, which seem to cause me to have to swallow more during runs seem to be:

  • Running while dehydrated
  • Running while tired

For others, there may be underlying medical issues such as asthma or acid reflux disease that lead to excessive swallowing while running, but there are some things we can do outside of exercise to help train ourselves to swallow less air. Author, Christy Callahan over at Livestrong.com provides some great tips below:

Prevention

  • Sip; don’t gulp beverages.
  • Take smaller bites while eating & chew food thoroughly with your mouth closed.
  • Don’t talk with your mouth full.
  • Avoid carbonated beverages.
  • Refrain from drinking through straws.
  • Avoid chewing gum.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • If and when possible, try to breathe through your nose as breathing through your mouth increases the amount of air you swallow into your stomach.

*The information presented in this article is based on my own personal experiences and should not be taken as medical advice.

The nose is for breathing, the mouth is for eating.  -Proverb

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2 thoughts on “Don’t “Drink” the Air- A Look at Aerophagia and Running

  1. byh

    Hi Janelle

    Found your article interesting as I have been experiencing some problems with aerophagia lately.

    I remember being more conscious about breathing control when I was fitter and wasn’t much of a mouth breather until lately, feeling guilty for years of neglect, when pushing myself at a higher intensity has lead to these excessive burping and stomach discomfort.

    Just realised that these episodes comes after my running sessions and decided to google this. Nice article and thanks!!

  2. janelle Post author

    No problem! I’m glad that I could help :) I always try to be conscious of my breathing while running because a lot of the time, improper breathing can ruin a run (or any other cardiovascular exercise).

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