Side stitches are the worst. They can zap you out of a fun run or state of flow in about .2 seconds.
First of all, here’s a friendly reminder that side stitches happen to basically everyone. 75% of people get one at least once a year (and a lot of people don’t even run). They happen to professional runners, and all types of athletes.
It’s tough to nail down exactly why we get side stitches because there are a lot of possible explanations: poor blood circulation, nervousness, improper breathing techniques, posture issues, etc. I must say, in a way this is reassuring: they may have nothing to do with your running technique or ability. On the other hand, it is super frustrating to try and nail down why they might sneak up on you. The good news is that although they can be excruciating, they are pretty harmless.
A few quick tips on prevention
Plan your meals
What you eat, and when, can play a huge factor in preventing side stitches. Try not to eat a large meal 2-3 hours before a run, and keep it low in fiber and fat (high carb here is ideal – think toast or oatmeal with a little jam and peanut butter).
I know, I know, you hear this all the time. But, trust me: just do it. Roll your shoulders, do some high knees and butt kicks (start out gently), and run a very slow mile to get your muscles and lungs ready for what’s to come. This can be the one trick to prevent you from getting a side stitch for your remaining 5, 10, or 20 miles. If you hate the idea of warm up, at the very least, start slowly and gradually increase your pace.
Work those obliques
Strong abs – obliques specifically – help with side stitch prevention. And in general, a strong core helps organs stay happy and not cramp up when running. So if you get side stitches often, you should implement strength training and core exercises into your fitness routine asap.
So, what should you do when you get a side stitch?
When I get side stitches, they tend to pop up intensely, and suddenly. There usually is no evolution: they just sucker punch me in the abdomen before I have time to realize what’s going on. If you can relate to this, I recommend simply stopping and walking until it goes away. Then, follow the next two tips.
Stretch like this
Stand with your legs hip width apart and raise your arms overhead. Then, bend forward slowly so you wind up in a V shape. This can relax the diaphragm and abdominal cavity. If you’re not into Vs, just fold all the way over and let your arms hang. You can also reach one arm overhead and bend into the side with the stitch.
Change (and focus on) your breathing pattern
It can be easy, and wonderful, to completely immerse yourself in your surroundings and lose touch with your body while running. This can be a glorious experience, or a miserable one if it leads to a cramp. Take a moment, and consciously breathe in while you take two or three steps, and then exhale on the next one. Get back in your body and focus on this breathing tempo, which may just do the trick.
Use your fingers
Press your hand into the area that hurts and release the pressure slowly while you exhale. Do this for a few rounds and consciously take deep inhales and exhales. I’ve found that when I have a particularly bad stitch, doing this right away can ease the stitch quickly.
Drink (or don’t)
Supposedly, dehydration can cause side stitches as can sugary drinks. If you’re running in the heat or haven’t had the chance to drink much, consider getting some liquids in. On the other hand, if you start noticing that you get side stitches every time you run with a sports drink, consider other beverages like Nuun electrolyte tablets or just plain old water.
Side stitches usually only last a few minutes, so try not to fret too much when you get one: you can successfully get ride of side stitches with just a little patience if nothing else works.