You’ve put in the work to get out and tackle a run: the Spandex is on, the sneakers are laced, and you even remembered to take your favorite fitness tracker along for the trip. But seven minutes into your morning miles, it hits you: the dreaded side stitch. Right up there with uncomfortable chafing (don’t worry: we’ve got a solution for you here) and getting lost, side stitches—commonly described as a sharp, nagging, cramping sensation in the right or left mid-torso—are a frequent annoyance for runners everywhere. Moreover, they’re an annoyance that a reported 60 percent of runners experience annually, 42 percent of whom say affects their performance, according to the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
So, just what exactly is a side stitch? Formally known in the medical world as exercise-related transient abdominal pain (ETAP), side stitches are most prevalent in runners, swimmers, and horseback riders, according to William Oswald, DPT, physical therapist at NYU Langone’s Rusk Rehabilitation. Generally, the pain runners experience is an irritation of the abdominal lining. And it’s not pleasant, to say the very least. Keep scrolling for what causes the cramping, along with your game plan for healing the side stitches before they sabotage your workout sesh.
What causes side stitches?
How do side stitches come about? Well, the cause varies. “Repetitive rotational movements—especially when the torso is extended—appear to aggravate the symptoms,” he says. “It occurs more frequently during competition and at higher intensities.” And, according to celebrity trainer Eric Fleishman, the stomach pain can happen when you’re overwhelming the body. “Usually, 99.9 percent of the time, you are in control of your body. But once in a while, your body can be in control of you, and typically this happens when you’re overwhelming the body,” he says, pointing to running too fast or after too much to eat or drink as common culprits of this.
“If you’re still digesting something and you start exercising, your body is being asked to do too many things at once, so it sends a signal [like through a side stitch] requesting you to stop,” says Fleishman. “Or sometimes if you’re holding your breath too much or not breathing sufficiently in a workout, the fight or flight mechanism will kick in, which can lead to cramping.”
Not exactly ideal when you’re trying to crank up the volume on the regular. Still, there are some things within your control that you can do to avoid the discomfort.
Side stitches can wreck a workout (and quick)—here’s how to ditch them on the fly
To make sure you’re not going to experience side stitches when you workout, be sure to skip out on high sugar drinks or fatty foods prior to activity, suggests Oswald. Also, make sure to take the time to warm-up to help stave these off, rather than going from 0 to 100 real quick.
“Just like any muscle when overworked or tight, cramping can occur,” says Corinne Fitzgerald, coach at Mile High Run Club. “A way to combat this is to strengthen your core with exercises such as planks, Russian twists, and leg raises to minimize the rotation in your top half.” Tightness in the hips can also bring on side stitches, stemming from the pelvis and stretching up under the ribcage. In this case, Fitzgerald recommends foam rolling on a small ball, stretching, yoga, or massage to help alleviate the symptoms, along with regular hip-opening stretches in your recovery regimen.
It also helps to avoid drinking really cold water when you’re in the middle of your workout. “When your body heats up and a runner, for example, drinks a really cold beverage, the body has to work to heat the liquid up in order to process it for use,” says Fleishman, adding that the liquid will then slosh around in your stomach (and feel uncomfortable). “The key is to drink a little bit of water before your workout, a little during, and a little after, and keep it at room temperature so that it’s easily absorbed.”
So what are you to do if you get side stitches in the middle of your workout? Unfortunately, even if you do all the things “right,” there’s still room for the side stitch to put a damper on your stride. “If you get a side stitch mid-run, don’t panic,” suggests Fitzgerald. “Take a minute or two to walk, open your chest and core with stretches and take deep breaths into your stomach.”
Taking deeper breaths can help decrease the amount of friction within the abdominal cavity. Then—after a few moments—Fitzgerald says that the pain should go away. If it doesn’t, Oswald suggests taking a pitstop to stretch and bend your upper body away from the pain. Pro tip: Try some leg and hip-opening moves, like leg swings, deep squats, and a classic quadriceps stretch so that you’re more limber once you start hitting the pavement again.
If side stitches are constantly cramping your style, though, then it’s time to consult with your doctor to rule out any serious digestive issues. Then, you’ll be on your merry way in no time.
Originally posted October 17, 2018, updated with additional reporting on March 19, 2020
Oh, there are also some common misconceptions about running that you may have heard, so check them out here and then head on over to find out the best tips to steal when you’ve got a long run penciled in on your period.
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