There are so many reasons to run: it’s convenient, it burns tons of calories, and can give you that amazing “runner’s high” when you feel fast, unstoppable, and free. But nothing kills a nice, endorphin-rich run like a side stitch. Almost every runner has felt it at one point—you take off on a run, start to hit your stride, and then an ache or almost “stabbing” pain beneath your rib cage catches you off guard. Should you run through it? Should you stop to walk and just hope goes away? Where did it come from in the first place? The truth is that science doesn’t know for sure, though several theories have been presented. Let’s take a look at the reasons side aches might occur when you run and the best ways to avoid them in the first place.
Why Do I Get Side Aches When I Run?
Many theories have been given as to why side aches or “side stitches” occur when you run. The American College of Sports Medicine (“ACSM”) boils it down to three different possible causes:
- Spasm in the diaphragm. Some blame side aches on poor blood supply in the diaphragm. This can create small spasms or pains. This could definitely be the case if you started out your run too fast or did too much before your body was ready to handle it.
- Irritation of the parietal peritoneum. Others believe it stems from irritation to the peritoneum; the lining in the abdominal cavity. This lining is sensitive to movement and when irritated can be perceived as sharp, stabbing pain.
- Stress on the peritoneal ligaments Still others speculate that when you run, the force of your steps “jiggles” the diaphragm around, specifically yanking the diaphragm downward while it is trying to lift upward with your breath.
Each of these explanations could be possible if you’re experiencing a side ache or side stich while you run. In order to help you avoid these irritating pains in the first place, here are 5 tips to help you avoid side aches and keep you running freely!
How To Prevent Side Aches When You Run
1. Warm Up!
Warming up before ANY workout is extremely important. The warm-up does so much for your workout including the following:
- Mobilizes your joints
- Activates and prepares your muscles
- Prevents injury during your workout
- Prepares you mentally for your workout
- Promotes better blood flow and circulation
For the sake of your run and for staving off side aches, it’s that last item on the list that really matters: “promotes better blood flow and circulation.” By warming up and getting your blood to circulate properly you can help keep the spasms from occurring in the diaphragm, lessen cramps or aches and feel better once you get to the heart of the run. We always say that the warm up should be like a “dress rehearsal” for your workout; so if you’re going for a run, walking for a few minutes coupled with some dynamic movements to wake up your ball and socket joints (hip circles, for instance) are great options.
2. Work At Your Level
Side aches are most common amongst the weekend warriors and those who are just getting back to running. Zero to 60 is great for a car, but not so much for running; you want to pace yourself and increase your running mileage slowly. Know your fitness level and work in the training zone that is proper for you. If you are new to running or just starting out again after a long break away, run at a slow and easy pace. This gives your body time to catch up with what’s going on and teaches the blood to circulate at the right pace. Your joints and ligaments (including those in your abdominal area) will have time to get used to the movement. Going too hard too soon overwhelms your body.
3. Eat The Right Thing
When you eat things that are hard to digest, the body sends blood flow to the digestive system to help process the food. This takes much-needed blood flow away from the diaphragm and can result in those aches and pains known as side stiches. Since foods high in fat and fiber are harder to digest, these are the foods you want to stay away from before you exercise. In some cases it might seem strange since you will need to avoid foods that are normally very good for you! For example, an apple is an excellent, healthy food choice full of fiber—but not a great option before a workout. Try a banana instead and save the apple for later in the day.
4. Focus On Your Breath
My best marathon runs occurred after I started teaching yoga. Yoga taught me to breathe better. By incorporating a steady, rhythmic breath to my runs I was more relaxed which led to a better stride and a better feeling overall. Not only does the breath relax you mentally, but physically it creates more space and a more relaxed body overall. The oxygen of the breath creates a steady, even blood supply and helps your body settle into the rhythm of your run. Depending on how long your stride is, try inhaling for 2 steps and exhaling for 2, or inhaling for 4 and exhaling for 4 if you have a shorter stride.
5. Strengthen Your Core
A weak core has long been suspected as one of the reasons side aches occur. By strengthening the transversus abdominus—the deeper muscle of the abdominals—you create a more stable center that can help minimize the irritation of the peritoneum as well as putting less stress on the peritoneal ligaments. Pilates has long been known as one of the best ways to strengthen your rectus abdominus. Another simple, super effective way is by practicing planks.
So don’t let annoying side aches get in the way of your running! Use these 5 tips to stay pain-free and happy the next time you lace up your shoes and head out for a jog.