Running 101: Why Do You Get A Stitch?

Running 101: Why Do You Get A Stitch?

If you’re one of the many out there to have taken up running in the last year, chances are you’re already hooked on the endorphin rush and cardio hit. That said, no matter how fit you are, side stitches are one of the most common issues runners experience, and can be all the more frustrating due to their spontaneous nature. We went to two running experts to delve deeper – from what causes a stitch to how to breathe better, here’s what they advise…

First, can you explain what causes a stitch?
“Getting a stitch is – like any other pain while running – a sign from your body that something isn’t quite right. But despite a fair bit of research, scientists can’t seem to agree on the exact cause of a stitch. The various theories include shallow breathing, blood supply disruption, and there are even theories it could be caused by the internal organs bouncing around as we run. The most popular and widely accepted theory is that a stitch is caused by inflammation of the parietal peritoneum – the lining of the abdominal and pelvic walls. My personal theory is that a stitch is like cramp, caused by lack of oxygen during anaerobic activity combined with dehydration.” – Alex Parren, personal trainer and running coach for Meglio

How much does your breathing have to do with a stitch?
“It’s certainly logical that correct or incorrect breathing can affect getting a stitch. Many scientists believe a stitch can be caused by a disruption to the blood supply of the diaphragm – the muscle that separates the abdomen from the heart and lungs. During exercise, blood rushes to our muscles and limbs and away from our core. This disruption of blood supply to the diaphragm can cause it to cramp or even spasm, presenting to us as a stitch. The best way to breathe to prevent a stitch is to avoid shallow breathing. Instead, breathe deeply and deliberately when you run. If possible, breathe in through your nose (as this air is more filtered) and out through your mouth.” – Alex

How much does a stitch have to do with body strength – is this a factor?
“Body strength and mobility could be a factor as to whether you are susceptible to getting a stitch when you run. You may not realise it, but you could be suffering from rib cage stiffness which could lead to getting a stitch. If this is the case, you may be more likely to feel the stitch on your right side. You can test to see if you have rib cage stiffness by standing in front of a mirror with your hands on your ribcage. Breathe deeply while watching and feeling what happens to your ribs. If one side does not rise or move in the same way as the other, or is inhibited, this could be the cause of your stitches.” – Alex 

The best way to breathe to prevent a stitch is to avoid shallow breathing. Instead, breathe deeply and deliberately when you run.
Alex Parren

If you do get a stitch in the middle of a run, what can you do?
“If you’re suffering from a stitch mid-run, it is important to try and breathe deeply to ensure you’re getting enough oxygen to your muscles. Try breathing ‘faster’ by inhaling every two steps and exhaling for one, which has been shown to help deepen the breath. It is also thought that if you exhale when the foot on the opposite side to where your stitch is strikes the floor, then it can help release any tension in that particular area. Continue to focus on your breathing and as the pain starts to go, you can look to start picking up your pace again.” – Steve Paterson, people development and product trainer at Runners Need

Are there any tactics that have been proven to work?
“There are various theories about what you can do to alleviate a stitch. Most are anecdotal, meaning they worked for the person who coined the theory, but won’t necessarily work for everyone. It also means unfortunately there is no solid scientific evidence to back them up. However, if you do experience a stitch in the middle of a run, try running with your hands on your hips or your arms stretched in the air. You can also stop running entirely and bend over to touch your toes or use your finger to press firmly on the painful area.” – Alex

Should you run through a stitch?
“Depending on the severity of the pain, you could run through a stitch and it should go away on its own. If the pain isn’t too bad, try slowing your pace right down to regulate your breathing and heart rate and make a conscious effort to breathe deeply. Breathing in for four seconds and out for four seconds can also help.” – Alex

Is there anything you can do before a run?
“Having a strong core can really help, as can improving your running form. Always make sure you have allowed enough time for your body to digest food before heading out on a run, or if you are strapped for time choose foods that are easier to digest. Warming up before a run is also crucial and will lessen your chances of getting a stitch.” – Steve

Is it true foam rolling can help?
“As stitches are very likely linked to blood flow and/or rib cage stiffness, foam rolling is an excellent choice and will certainly work for many people. Foam rolling is scientifically proven to improve blood flow and increase mobility. Therefore, foam rolling regularly, especially around the back and torso areas, will improve your blood flow and reduce your risk of getting a stitch when you run.” – Alex

Finally – if you struggle to keep your breathing under control when running, what are your top tips?
“Our breathing rate is linked directly to our heart rate and lactic threshold. The higher your heart rate and closer to your lactic threshold you are, the faster and more laboured your breathing will be. If you aren’t super fit, this will mean that a moderately fast pace could leave you gasping for air. If you struggle to keep your breathing under control when you run, it is a sure sign that you are running too fast for your current fitness level. It’s important not to let ego dictate your pace – don’t run an eight-minute mile just because that’s what your rivals are doing on social media. 

It is still widely believed by many exercisers that the faster and harder you exercise, the quicker you will get fit. However, it has been proven that running at a slower, calmer pace to build a strong aerobic base (combined with higher tempo training at other times within your weekly regime) is the best way to get fitter. What this means is that instead of trying to maintain a gallant pace while gasping for air, slow your pace right down to the point that you can still breathe comfortably in and out of your nose. If this means going so slow that you’re walking instead of running, swallow your pride and let it be, until your fitness level is high enough for you to be able to run faster with a slower breathing rate. This will come with consistency and dedication to your training.” – Alex 

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DISCLAIMER: Features published by SheerLuxe are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your GP or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programme.

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