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How can I get rid of a side stitch when running?

Plagued by stitches when you run? Here's how to get rid of them

Runners tend to be a resilient bunch, able to push through the pain barrier in order to get fitter and stronger. But a dreaded stitch? That can stop us in our tracks. Read on to find out more about why you might be getting a stitch when running, what you can do about them and how to lessen the risk of succumbing to a stitch on future runs…

What is a running stitch?

If you've ever been out running and have suddenly experienced a stabbing pain in your side, you've most likely been hit with a stitch. Also known as exercise-related transient abdominal pain (ETAP), it's not serious and does not require further medical attention, but it can be painful and can take your breath away. It usually feels like a sharp, stabbing pain, but can also be experienced as a dull ache, cramping or a pulling sensation.

How common is a side stitch in running?

Research suggests that up to 70% of runners have reported side stitches at one time or another in the past year. One reason it’s so common in runners is that it tends to occur when you perform repetitive movements with your torso held upright. That’s why it’s much less common in swimming or cycling.

Why do I get a stitch when I run?

Although the exact cause of side stitches in running has yet to be proven, theories abound, including tension in the diaphragm, cramping in the abdominal muscles and irritation of structures within the abdominal cavity.

Sports medicine doctor Jordan Metzl, co-author of The Athlete’s Book of Home Remedies (Rodale, £17.99), believes the most likely cause is a diaphragm spasm.

The diaphragm, a sheet of muscle that extends across the bottom of
 the ribcage, plays an important role in breathing. Just like your leg muscles, your diaphragm can fatigue and cramp when put under too much stress. That’s why side stitches tend to strike beginner runners or those stepping up pace or distance.

If you've not left enough time between eating and running, you may also experience a side stitch. This is due to a lack of blood flow to the diaphragm while you're still digesting food, which can cause it to spasm.

The good news is, there are a variety of effective strategies that can help to prevent a stitch during running...

How to get rid of a stitch when running

There are a few things you can do to attempt to alleviate a stitch while out running:

  1. Reduce your pace to a slow jog or even a walk.
  2. Gently push your hands into the area of discomfort, just under your ribs, to help ease the cramping.
  3. Try changing your breathing pattern for a few breaths, taking in a very deep breath, then exhaling sharply. It may be helpful to synchronise your breathing 
with your running: breathing out when you footstrike on the opposite side to your pain is said to encourage the tension in
 the diaphragm to relax.
  4. If these strategies don’t work, stop running and try stretching: first, stretch to your side away from the site of the pain and then bend forward.

    What can I do to avoid a side stitch when running?

    There are some measures you can take that may prevent a stitch from developing in the first place. It could be that your stitch is being caused by a bad breathing pattern, postural problems, weak abdominals or digestion issues. Here are some more tips on how to avoid a stitch while out running…

    1) Don’t overeat before running. Have a carbohydrate-based meal two or three hours before a run. If you need to snack in the interim, pick easily digestible foods, such a banana or half a bagel.

    2) Sip, don’t chug. Take small sips of liquid on the move, to maintain hydration without filling up your stomach.

    3) Build a stronger core. A study of 50 runners found that stronger deep core muscles were linked to a decrease in abdominal pain on the run. Incorporate planks, dead bugs and glute bridges into your routine. Practising yoga or Pilates on a regular basis could also help.

    4) Warm up properly. Going from standing to a full sprint may save you time on the watch, but it can create irregular, rapid-fire breathing patterns, which can leave you bending over in pain. Do a proper warm-up, followed by two to three minutes of brisk walking, then gradually work into an easy running effort before launching into your planned workout pace.

    5) Breathe more deeply. If breathing is too shallow, it doesn’t provide adequate oxygen to muscles, including the diaphragm. Inhaling and exhaling fully and deeply can help reduce the occurrence of side stitches.

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