A side stitch when running can be a very debilitating issue to have to fight through.
Most runners at some point in their running journey will have experienced this horrible feeling. I know I did when I first started out!
It can be so frustrating how it appears from nowhere at seemingly random moments, and sometimes it will go away while other times it hangs around until the end of your run.
What causes side stitches while running?
A side stitch (less commonly known as exercise-related transient abdominal pain, or ETAP for short) is that sharp pain that is felt on the left or right-hand side of the abdomen, and it is caused by the diaphragm muscle spasming.
An increase in breathing rate can also cause your lungs to put pressure on your diaphragm.
If the diaphragm muscle is impinged from above and below it will receive less blood flow and will spasm, resulting in painful side stitches.
Side stitches are very different to leg muscle cramps while running, in that they are not caused by a lack of electrolytes in the body and consequently muscles overload spasms.
How common is a stitch when running?
It’s so common in runners, and research suggests that around 70% of runners get a stitch at some point when they start running and have experienced that stabbing pain in their side at some point during a run or race.
By the way, I’m one of those people who has had side stitch pain before, in fact, I used to get it all the time when I started running.
This actually seems to be a common theme among runners who get side stitches – it most frequently happens when people start out running
It can be a real pain in the side so to speak, but I’m here to help you understand what a side stitch while running actually is, and ultimately how to prevent side stitches from happening again in the future.
How to prevent side stitches [that awful sharp pain!]
I’m happy to say, there are a few precautions you can take to ensure you prevent a stitch during a run.
You’ll also most likely find that you stop getting stitches once you have gained more experience running.
This happened to me even before researching how to prevent side stitches for myself – oh if only a website like Trail and Kale had existed for me back then! 🙂
1. Don’t drink too much water during your run
The first precaution you can try is to drink water before and after your exercise, NOT DURING!
That doesn’t mean drinking lots of water, just enough so that you feel hydrated enough to run for however long you plan to run for.
This of course will limit your run time or distance depending on your experience level, and the environment you are running in.
Be sensible and of course, if it’s a hot day take water with you just in case you need to drink it due to feeling the symptoms of dehydration.
The last thing we want is for you to suffer from that, which would be a far worse problem to have during a run!
This is merely a way to troubleshoot your issue, and not a recommendation to run without water. I say ‘troubleshoot’ because different people will find that different techniques work better than others.
You should eventually be able to naturally stop getting side stitches, as you gain more experience, and your body gets stronger due to having more miles in your system.
2. Do dynamic stretching to warm up and start your run slow to improve blood flow
Dynamic stretching before a run can help with increasing blood flow gradually before your body really gets into it during a run. That’s especially true if you plan to do some intensive training such as interval training or a tempo run where you expect to run faster than normal.
Warming up properly like this certainly reduces the shock to your system when you do actually begin your run.
As a result of a good warm up, your rate of breathing should be more relaxed and you’ll likely experience less inflammation in your muscles and side cramps will be far less likely to occur.
Dynamic stretching is different from static stretching in that dynamic stretching is a type of stretching that uses momentum to increase the range of motion in your leg and arm muscles.
For an explanation and video demonstration of my favorite dynamic stretches for runners, head over to our best stretches for runners article.
In case you were wondering, static stretching is a type of stretching that involves holding a position for an extended period of time and is recommended after a run, rather than beforehand. The post mentioned above also features some great static stretches to do as part of your post-run cool-down.
Once you have stretched your legs and upper body, make sure you begin your run much slower than you may be used to, and gradually work up your speed in line with your cardiovascular capability.
You know this by looking at your heart rate zone on your GPS running watch, and by going off ‘feel’ if you have more experience.
3. Don’t eat too much before running
Try eating a light meal before running, and try to avoid foods that are high in fat or fiber before running.
Personally, I try not to eat for at least an hour before running, and this really helps to stop the side stitch from happening.
It also helps reduce any gut bombs or running-related nausea that may occur from high-intensity running over long distances.
When I’m racing, the last thing I eat is a banana, and I’ll make sure I finish eating it at least 45-1.5 hours before the race starts.
This is a great tip if you like bananas because they are a slow-release energy that kicks in around 45 minutes after eating them.
4. Strengthen your core abdominal muscles
I think one of the main reasons I used to get side stitches while running was that I had weak abdominal muscles.
By the way, this is when I started running again, after years of not doing much exercise at all – sound familiar?
I used to run a lot when I was younger, more specifically 100-meter short-distance races. You know, the sort of running that gets taught in most high schools.
After picking up running again, and running consistently for a few months, as well as mixing in runner’s core strength exercise – I noticed that I was no longer getting these side stitches.
Don’t neglect cross-training and upper body strength, if you want to improve running form and performance!
Running with poor posture will allow so many running injuries to creep in, so reading that post above is so worthwhile to ensure you’re starting your running journey with good posture and a solid foundation to build upon.
I wish that there was more education on the benefits of running when I was in high school, and taking that one step further, the benefits of stepping off the road and running on the trails.
Instead of the stigma of running being one of those things that’s not cool, wouldn’t it be so much better to get more people into it at a young age?
If you haven’t tried trail running before, you should! When I started trail running I was amazed at how quickly all the common injuries that I used to cycle through, just went away.
Read our beginner’s guide to trail running next to learn how to get into trail running.
Not only does trail running help reduce injuries but it’s a really fun way to elevate your running experience and a way in which you can get stronger as a runner.
Above all else, however, trail running is incredibly beneficial to your mental health due to exercising in nature and the endorphins you get from the running exercise of course.
There’s no better natural mental & physical therapy!
5. Slow down and concentrate on a steady deep breathing technique
If you do start to feel a side stitch coming on, even after following this advice, slow down and focus on a deep breathing technique from the belly.
Taking a deep breath from your belly every now and then, rather than your chest will really help. This technique has helped me in my marathon training and racing progression no end!
And remember, you’re trying to troubleshoot why you’re getting a side stitch abdominal pain, so don’t feel despondent if you still get them during this process.
Also consider whether some breathwork training could help you. This can be done in conjunction with taking ice baths after running a tough race or training run. This doesn’t sound fun, but you’ll thank me later!
Stick with it, I promise you’ll get through these side stitches, and running will be fun again! I know abdominal pain like this can be painful, and downright awful – BUT YOU’VE GOT THIS! 🙂
Well, I hope this guide was helpful and gave you some actionable information that you can try out while troubleshooting your own side stitches. Remember the 4 key things to think about
And if none of these suggestions help prevent your side stitch woes, please see a physical therapist who will surely be able to help you out.
Read on for some frequently asked questions that may also be helpful to your side stitch issues.
Some Frequently Asked Questions
How long does a stitch from running last?
How long is a piece of string? Who knows right?! The amount of time it takes for a side stitch while running to go can be anywhere from 3 minutes to 20 minutes, at least in my experience.
That is of course only my experience so, in order to learn more about this myself.
With that said, please leave a comment down below letting me know how long your stitch lasts – it may give me some clue on how to better address your issues and get rid of your side stitch for good.
Should you keep running through a stitch?
Well, I don’t think there’s any specific evidence to say that you have to stop running when you get a side stitch but, to be honest it will likely be so painful that you will have to do so. That used to be the case for me anyway.
The only time where I have just run through this pain is during a half marathon race which I had trained extremely hard for, and maybe a couple of 10k races come to think of it – haha.
If your side stitch hurts so much that the pain is excruciating, please stop running immediately.
Running is supposed to be fun and a sustainable outlet for good health, so it’s important not to have too many experiences where your motivation gets dampened.
Disclaimer – I am not a medical expert but all the information in this article has been gathered from my vast experience of running, and how I have managed to overcome side stitch pains while running.
You should always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers, with any questions you may have regarding personal health or a medical condition, including diagnosis and treatment for your specific medical needs.