How to avoid a side stitch when running

How to avoid a side stitch when running

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You know the feeling, you’re out for a run and everything feels great. You’ve completed your warm up, the weather is perfect for running, you feel good. And then you get a side stitch. A side stitch when running can be very unpleasant. 

The stabbing pain beneath your ribs is probably not unfamiliar to you. 

Although a side stitch is harmless, it can be enough to slow you down or stop you in your tracks entirely. 

Many runners experience a side stitch while running no matter their running experience. It’s not just something that only beginner runners have to deal with. 

According to a 2014 study, 70% of runners reported a side stitch in the last year and that in a single running event approximately one in five participants can be expected to suffer the condition

As with any pain felt within your body, it’s a sign that you need to take notice and change the way you are currently approaching your runs. A side stitch is normally a sign that your body is overwhelmed. 

In this blog post, I’d like to share some tips on how to avoid a side stitch while running. 

side stitch when running

How does a side stitch develop?

From poor blood supply to improper breathing, there are many different theories that could explain why a side stitch develops. 

The main theories out there are to do with poor blood circulation in the diaphragm and decreased oxygen intake. 

The diaphragm plays an important role when breathing

Many runners forget to breathe deeply and so don’t always use their diaphragm as effectively as they should do.

Instead, short and shallow breaths – those that you feel mainly in your upper chest – are used which then causes tension and cramps. 

Other causes include a full stomach, nervousness, improper running form, weak abdominal muscles, running too quickly and dehydration. 

How to prevent a side stitch

There are many ways to prevent a side stitch. 

Depending on your own running journey and how long you’ve been running, you may find that some of these tips do not work for you.

If you’ve suffered from a side stitch in the past, then trying to prevent it is very much a process of trial and error. 

My advice to you would be to try some of these tips on your next few runs and see what works for you. 

The reasons for why a side stitch develops are not the same for everyone, so I wouldn’t expect the prevention to be the same for everyone either.

side stitch when running

Eat a light breakfast

Eat a light breakfast before your run that is low in fibre and fat. If you’re stuck for ideas, read my blog post what to eat before a run.

In the above blog post, I explain why to avoid foods high in fibre. 

Basically, it takes your digestive system a long time to break down fibrous foods, so if you’re running whilst your body is in the middle of breaking down these foods, you’re likely to experience cramps and an upset stomach. 

Instead, eat carb-rich foods that are not too heavy on your stomach.

Try and eat a meal two to four hours before the start of the run. 

If you struggle to eat very early in the morning, make sure you have a carb-rich meal like pasta the night before.

Don’t forget to warm up

A warm up is essential to get your body and mind ready for the run. 

Opt for a light jog in your warm up so you can fully optimise your breathing before your run. 

Believe it or not, your body takes roughly a mile to get into the swing of a run. 

Before this point, your breathing and movement may feel laboured, hence why a warm up is advised to make this process a little bit easier. 

Run slow and steady

Don’t be tempted to head out too quickly. 

As explained above, your breathing may feel laboured which may in turn end up being a catalyst for your side stitch.

Start slowly and increase your speed over time. 

side stitch when running

Improve your core

Your core muscles, such as your abdominals, are important in running as they help you to hold a strong and stable position for longer. 

Sports like running and swimming call heavily on your upper body muscles, and as a result, you are more likely to experience a side stitch when doing these types of sports.

Your running technique and form is not only important to help you run more efficiently, but it also helps you prevent common running injuries and niggles like a side stitch. 

Try some core exercises for runners next time you hit the gym or do a workout at home. 

If you do these regularly, they will go a long way in helping you improve your core.

Control your breathing

If you struggle to catch your breath while running, this is a sign that you are running too fast.

If you cannot hold a conversation while you run, slow down to a pace where you can speak to a friend without gasping for breath.

As mentioned earlier, your diaphragm – the area of the body where a side stitch is commonly felt – plays an important role in breathing. 

Irregular and shallow breathing can cause a side stitch to develop. 

Find your breathing rhythm by running slow and steady. Remember to breathe deeply, from your diaphragm, but try not to focus on it too much. 

Check out my post on how to breathe when running for more tips and advice. 

Stay hydrated

Dehydration has been found to play a role in the forming of a side stitch. 

Although drinking water during your run may invoke a side stitch if you’re not used to doing it, studies have shown that if you practice fluid intake during a run, the pain will slowly go away. 

Avoid drinks high in sugar as these have been found to cause a side stitch compared to water. 

side stitch when running

How to treat a side stitch

If you’re out for a run and the pain strikes, try these simple tips to help reduce your pain and resolve the side stitch.

  • Take a break or slow down to a walk.
  • Breathe deeply and exhale slowly.
  • Stretch your abdominal muscles by reaching one hand overhead. 
  • Try bending gently into the side where you feel the stitch.
  • Try pressing your fingers gently into the affected area while you bend your torso slightly forward.
  • Stay hydrated while exercising, but avoid sugary sports drinks if they irritate your stomach. 

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Caroline Geoghegan

Caroline Geoghegan (aka Run With Caroline) helps people become faster and stronger runners. She started her blog in 2018 to share her passion for running. Caroline is a UK Athletics qualified Run Leader and Run Coach and NASM qualified Personal Trainer.

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