How Do I Get Rid of a Side Stitch?

runner with side stitch

"I frequently get a side stitch on my left side about five minutes into my run. How can I get rid of those cramps or, better yet, avoid them in the first place?"

A side stitch is a sharp, intense pain under the lower edge of the ribcage, more often on the left side. They're common in beginner runners who tend to breathe more quickly and shallow.

Cause of Side Stitches While Running

What exactly causes side stitches?

Some runners notice they get them when they eat too close to their run or if they start out their run too quickly, without a proper warm-up.

The actual cause is a topic that's been studied and debated, and there's still no definite answer. Some research has shown that drinking high-sugar beverages before exercise increases the likelihood of stitches. One study found a link between side stitches and increased curvature of the spine. Some experts attribute them to improper breathing while running. Contrary to popular belief, drinking while running does not cause them.

Prevention of Side Stitches

Regardless of what actually causes side stitches, there are some things you can do to help prevent them.

  • If you tend to suffer from side stitches, try to avoid eating within one hour of running. Stick to plain water for pre-hydration -- avoid sugary, especially carbonated, drinks.
  • Make sure that you always warm up before your runs. Do some dynamic stretches and start with a 5-minute walk or easy jog. You should start your run feeling warmed-up and relaxed.
  • The most effective way to prevent side stitches is to avoid shallow breathing. Make sure you're breathing in and out through your mouth when you're running. Breathe deeply from your belly, not your chest. Deep belly breathing allows you to take in more air. Doing yoga can help you work on your deep belly breathing.
  • Running in extreme cold temperatures may induce side stitches, as it's less comfortable to take in deep lungs full of frigid air until you're thoroughly warmed up. If you're running in cold weather, try breathing through a scarf or neck warmer.
  • Finally, make sure that you're practicing good running form and maintain good posture, so you're not hunching over while running. If you're leaning over, it's difficult to take in deep breaths.

Treatment of Side Stitches While Running

  • First, gently push your fingers into the area where you're feeling the stitch -- that should help relieve some of the pain. Then, to get rid of the side stitch, try altering your breathing pattern.
  • Take a deep breath in as quickly as you can, to force the diaphragm down. Hold your breath for a couple of seconds and then forcibly exhale through pursed lips.
  • If you get a cramp in the middle of a run, you might want to try changing your breathing/striding pattern. If you always exhale when your right foot strikes the ground, try exhaling with the left foot strike.
  • If all else fails, you may have to stop and walk briskly for a few seconds while concentrating on deep breathing. Continue running after the stitch goes away. 

    Source: Darren Morton, et al. "Influence of posture and body type on the experience of exercise-related transient abdominal pain." Journal of Science and Medicine in Sports, 2010 13(5).

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