“What is a stitch” and “how can I prevent or get rid of it” are two of the most frequent questions I get asked by new runners. Side stitches are pretty common, especially in new runners and they can be a real pain which stops someone from running altogether. A stitch is a pain in the side which develops whilst running. It is usually located on one side only (in my experience more often the right), just below the rib cage.
There has been lots of research into what a stitch actually is and what causes it but nothing is really conclusive. The general consensus is that the pain is due to a spasm of either the diaphragm itself or the ligaments which support it.
As the stitch is to do with the diaphragm, it makes sense that the cause of a stitch could be down to breathing patterns whilst running. This makes even more sense when you consider that stitches occur more in new runners who maybe haven’t developed their cardiovascular fitness as much as a more experienced runner. This means if you are new to running you probably breathe in a fast and shallow manner with less control, than a more seasoned runner who has developed the fitness and strength to have more control over their breathing.
So, if you are a new runner who struggles with stitches, bear with it as it will more than likely improve along with your fitness level. In the meantime, try this technique if you feel a stitch coming on: Breathe in deeply and quickly through your nose, ensuring you expand your chest, not your belly. Hold the breath for a second and then breathe out forcibly through pursed lips. This technique has always worked for me when I have felt a stitch developing.
There are other theories out there which centre around breathing out on one step and in for the next two and the such like. They may be worth trying, but in my experience I found it way too much to concentrate on as a new runner when you’re just trying to keep going!
Another thing I have always found to help is to push my fingers quite hard into the area of pain and hold them there for about 10-20 seconds! If the cause of pain is to do with a spasm, then this could work along the same lines of stretching out a spasm in the calf for example.
If all else fails, you have two choices: run through it or stop and walk until it clears.
If you’re not new to running and have either always been plagued with stitches or they have just developed, there are other things you can try. Some research has shown a link between eating too soon before running; drinking sugary drinks before a run and also the posture you hold whilst running. Consider if any of these could be a factor in your case. I recommend not eating for at least an hour before a run and even with this gap it should only be a small snack. After a meal you’re talking at least 2 hours before running.
Stick to plain water before and during a run. Unless you are running for over an hour there is no real need for ‘isotonic’ sports drinks etc which are often just loaded with sugar. For longer runs, drink water before and during and take an energy gel with you for an extra boost.
Finally, if you’re not sure how good your posture is then try running along a high street or somewhere with lots of windows so you can catch a sneaky peak of yourself as you run past. This is often quite a shock, especially if done further into your run when you are fatigued! If you do think your posture could be to blame, you can try to hold yourself better, but I would recommend seeing a running coach for help.