Have you ever felt a stabbing pain in your side about halfway through your run? Or maybe even a few minutes into your run. The good old side stitch. But what is a side stitch? Why do we get them? And how do we prevent side stitches?
Keep on reading to find out!
What is a Side Stitch?
The side stitch, also known as a side cramp or just a stitch, is a sharp localized pain that occurs during many forms of exercise. Most commonly, running—the technical name in the medical literature is Exercise-related Transient Abdominal Pain or ETAP for short.
If you’re an occasional runner, you’ve probably felt the pain before. You’ll also know that you can get through it if you keep pushing. But it’s still uncomfortable, and if it happens during a race, it can ruin your day.
Usually, the pain will occur in the abdomen—from your chest to your tummy—but you may also feel it towards the side of the rib cage.
The timing of your last meal likely has a factor too. If you decide to exercise just after eating, you’re more likely to get a stitch.
This question is a little harder to answer because it depends on where the pain is felt and your personal history.
That’s why it’s always advisable to follow up with a medical professional if you feel any discomfort during your run.
Today, I’m talking specifically about the “classic” side stitch. The one you feel around the side of the ribs and at the bottom of the lungs.
Now there’s still a debate on why these types of side stitches occur, ranging from diaphragmatic (the muscle below your lungs to help you breath) spasms to the irritation of the abdominal wall or even the misfiring of a nerve called the phrenic nerve (used for control of the diaphragm). And while we still may not know exactly why stitches occur, there are ways to prevent or at least lessen the chances of getting a side stitch.
To prevent side stitches from happening, we need to talk about my favorite subject. Breathing! And more importantly, how to breathe when you run.
If you’ve read any of my running posts about breathing, then you’ll probably know that I’m a big proponent of nose breathing while running.
So what’s the key to preventing the stitch from happening in the first place?
By breathing through your nose, you’ll most likely utilize deep belly breathing. And belly breathing activates the diaphragm leading to more blood flow in the area. With adequate blood flow, it’s much less likely that spasms or even irritation would happen in the first place.
So next time you’re out on your run, switch to nose breathing and banish those side stitches before they even occur.
What if a Side Stitch comes on?
Alright, a stitch still may happen from time to time. But don’t worry, there are ways that you can attempt to get rid of it.
The first option would be to slow down or even stop running for a minute. I know, crazy, right? Allow your body to find its equilibrium. Try performing some slow nose breathing to activate the diaphragm more deeply.
If you’re in a race, or you don’t want to stop, there’s another trick you can try. Change your breathing pattern.
- With your nose, take a quick double inhale. The type of inhaling you’d hear when a child is sobbing.
- Follow it with a longer, single exhale through the mouth or nose.
Again, this will activate your diaphragm, promote blood flow to the problem area, and correct the firing of the phrenic nerve, the nerve that controls the diaphragm.
So no matter what the reason may be, the solutions come back to breathing. For that reason, I’d suggest reading my post on nose breathing and making it part of your training today!