How to get rid of a side stitch when running

A stitch can soon become a runner’s worst nightmare, they go down in the book with blisters and broken trainers as one of the most annoying things that can happen to you as a runner. Whilst stitches are still not fully understood by physiologists there are some popular techniques that can help to relieve the symptoms most of the time.

What is a side stitch?

Massaging a stitch

 

Stitches are a intense, tight stabbing pain that normally occurs under the ribcage on the right side of the body when exercising. It’s officially referred to as exercise related transient abdominal pain (ETAP). The cause of a stitch is still not known, there are a few theories on why they occur, one is that the up and down movement of the body when running causes the major organs like the liver to disrupt the function of the diaphragm.

Another theory is that increased blood flow to the liver could cause temporary portal hypertension (increased blood pressure in the hepatic portal system) and temporary liver enlargement, this could explain why most stitches occur on the right side of the body.

There are several other theories such as fluid in the gut that causes strain on visceral ligaments, or restriction of the blood supply to the diaphragm, but none have been proven.

How do I get rid of a stitch?

Stretching a stitch

 

Whilst there is no definitive answer as to what can be done to stop the pain of a stitch, there are a few useful techniques that can be tried. The success rate of these techniques varies from person to person so try them and see what works best for you:

  • Side Stretches – These are a stretch to the side of the trunk, where you lean directly to one side.
  • Massaging the area of pain – A simple technique that most people do instinctively, but it works for many people.
  • Slow down and exhale – This is probably the most effective technique. So you need to slow down to a light jog, then exhale strongly as the opposite foot to the side of the stitch hits the ground.Don’t do it on every foot strike or you’ll be hyperventilating, but as you need to breath out do so strongly and time it with the opposite foot hitting the ground. Apparently this one sided jolt to the diaphragm helps regain its normal function.
  • Hands up and breath – So this technique involves holding your hands as high above your head as possible, then breathing in fully holding that breath for a few seconds and then breathing out forcefully

Can you prevent stitches?

Again this is a question that doesn’t have a definitive answer, but many believe that certain steps can be taken to reduce the possibility of a stitch. Many runners and our staff do all of these as part of their running routine anyway as they are good general running practices.

Warm up properly. This sounds like the most obvious advice, but by bringing your breathing rate up gently your diaphragm has time to adapt to the extra exertion and is less likely to stitch.

Avoid heavy meals before exercising. Again an obvious one, but there is some thought that large heavy meals before exercise can contribute to stitches occurring. Read our blog on what to eat before running for some good tips here.

Breath Fully. Some people adopt short fast breathing patterns when running; however it has been proposed that this could contribute to stitches occurring. So aim for deep full breaths in and out when running.

Get into a breathing rhythm. Adopting a steady breathing rhythm could also help with prevention of a stitch, a good rhythm is three breaths in then two breaths out each breath timed with a footstrike.

So that’s our advice for reducing the possibility of a stitch and also dealing with them if you get one, if you have any further tips for your fellow runners, why not leave them in the comments below?

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Ryan has worked in the sports industry since 1999 and has a wealth of experience across most subjects. Ryan holds a BSc in microbiology and has studied sports physiology in great detail in his own time. His main areas of specialisation are: footwear construction, footwear technology, strength & conditioning and anatomy & physiology. He splits his 13 hours a week exercise between, Kickboxing, MMA, Crossfit, Rock Climbing and Running.