When I first started running regularly I used to frequently get a painful pinch on the side part of my torso, around my mid-section, below my rib cage. The pinching quickly brought me back to high school gym class and the pinch I would feel in my diaphragm after being prompted to run a one-mile speed test. Back then I was not a runner. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would willingly run, let alone run for fun, and experience these running cramps.
What are running cramps?
These side pains, or side cramps, I now know, are more commonly known as running cramps, runner’s cramps or side stitches. They are common when running and while they can happen to even the most seasoned and experienced runner, they do happen less frequently to me now that I know what running cramps are and how to prevent them.
What causes running cramps?
There are many theories about what causes running cramps, and the cramping can vary depending on the person and the location of the cramps. According to a report by Women’s Health, “When running, the legs put pressure on the diaphragm from below, while super-fast breathing puts pressure on the diaphragm from above, effectively pinching the muscle and cutting off the flow of blood and oxygen to the muscle.”
That sounds super medical and complicated right? Another theory is more simple, running causes ligaments attached to internal organs to be tugged around, causing the discomfort. Cramping that is lower in the abdomen could be coming from the stomach and be spurred by something you ate or drank before your run.
No matter the cause of the running cramps, most everyone will agree they are painful to experience and make you want to stop your run dead in it’s tracks. But there is hope. You don’t have to push through side stitches during every run. And if you do get a side stitch during your run, there are a few tactics you can follow to minimize the discomfort and, possibly, make it go away completely.
How do you prevent running cramps?
Here are some common ways to stop or prevent running cramps from starting. Some of these methods are condoned by experts and some are from my own personal experience as a runner over the last seven years. I hope these tactics will help eliminate side stitches during your next run.
- Control Your Breathing: Personally I have found that if I breathe in my nose and out my mouth during my run, I am less likely to experience running cramps. When I would get carried away and breathe in and out my mouth it seemed to make the cramping occur. Experts call this lower lung breathing.
- Be Mindful of Diet: Many experts believe running cramps are spurred by what you eat before going for a run. “Foods that are higher in fat and fiber take longer to digest. That doesn’t mean they are bad foods, but if you eat them within one to two hours before a run, they can cause havoc — creating stomach upset, stitches, and other problems,” according to a Runner’s World report.
- Practice Proper Hydration: Similarly, drinking too much or too little before a run can increase your risk of developing side stitches while running. In addition to drinking water, there are a variety of hydration drinks for runners. A few I have tried include ZICO Coconut Water, Accelerade and Nuun. Instead of chugging water before your run, you might also bring a small bottle of water with you to sip from during your run. I really like the FuelBelt Spring Palm Water Holder.
- Don’t Forget a Warmup: Like my high school story, where I had to run fast and furious for one mile with little to no warmup, experts say the lack of a warmup prior to your run can prime your body for developing side cramps. A sample warmup may be to “Invest in two to three minutes of brisk walking, gradually work into an easy running effort, and then into your planned running workout pace,” according to Runner’s World.
- Slow Down Your Pace: When you first begin running you want to go fast and far, but building up running endurance is a slow process. Tone back the excitement just a little bit and slow your pace and those running cramps may go away.
- Strengthen the Abdominal Wall: Abdominal exercises, such as planks, can help strengthen the area prone to cramping. Core strength is vital to successful running, so this is a good practice regardless of whether or not you get cramps during your run.
I hope this post was helpful in understanding what running cramps are and how they can be prevented. While running cramps are annoying, I can attest that I experience them less the longer I have been running. Over the years I have learned how to strengthen my core, hydrate and fuel properly and generally avoid a lot of the common causes of running cramps.
What are your tips for preventing side cramps?
How do you handle running cramps when you get them?
*This post was originally published in 2010 and has been updated and republished for accuracy and comprehensiveness.