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The term ‘runner’s stitch’ refers to that special kind of cramp that every runner seems to experience at some point; that debilitating pain that grabs at the side of your body under your ribs. It’s an extremely common complaint among runners but as yet there are no concrete answers backed up by scientific research to explain why it happens. However, there are plenty of theories!
Listed below are the top three tried and tested methods of dealing with a stitch when it strikes:
1. Direct pressure
The technical term for runner’s stitch is exercise related transient abdominal pain and one popular theory is that it’s caused by, not so technically termed, jiggling!
There is no doubt that running causes the internal organs to be jiggled about and it’s thought that this repetitive movement creates irritation in the muscle walls of the abdomen. Many runners report feeling a cramping pain in one or both shoulders at the onset of a stitch and this ties in with the jiggling theory because of nerve connections between abdomen and shoulder.
The most effective remedy appears to be simply placing your hand over the painful area and pushing firmly
In most cases, this can be done without stopping but slowing the pace or walking will certainly make it easier. The direct pressure, along with possibly bending the body in the direction of the stitch, provides an almost instant ‘cure’ and the runner can generally pick up pace and carry on without any more trouble.
2. Deep breathing
Breathing quickly or using short, shallow breaths places much greater stress on the diaphragm compared to normal, slower breathing. Another theory is that this extra stress may cause the muscles and supportive tissues of the diaphragm to spasm or cramp, creating a stitch.
Synchronising breathing with footfalls is reported by runners to be effective in easing the pain of a stitch and also as a preventative measure. Most runners will naturally breath in time with their stride but it seems to be a case of thinking more about the number of strides it takes to inhale and then the number it takes to exhale. Lengthening the exhaling process can help to alleviate the pain of a stitch so, for example, if you normally inhale for two strides and then exhale for two strides, changing the latter to take three strides can make all the difference. Concentrating on taking deeper breaths and slowing the pace if your breathing rate becomes too rapid may be all it takes to avoid a stitch occurring in the first place.
3. Run on an empty stomach
Ask six runners to advise you on what and when to eat before running and you’ll get seven answers! This really is something that becomes personal preference and will be discovered through a process of trial and error. However, it’s generally agreed that eating, or even drinking large amounts, should be avoided for at least one hour prior to running. Hydration levels can be maintained by drinking small amounts regularly throughout the day and most runners find that the little and often approach works best when planning meals too.
Raising your hands above your head to create a stretch in your stomach is one way of dealing with a stitch or another is to stretch the affected side of your body by raising the arm on the same side and stretching it across the top of your body to the opposite side. This can often be done without stopping but slowing down or walking momentarily may help. A full stomach will undoubtedly push against the diaphragm which will have the domino effect of pushing against the lungs. The combination of extra stress on the diaphragm and shallower breathing may be enough to create a stitch but it might simply be that a heavier stomach will be subject to even greater jiggling!
One piece of factual evidence linking all of the most common theories is that new, or less experienced, runners are far more prone to suffering from runner’s stitch. This suggests that the process of becoming a more experienced and therefore more efficient runner may bring with it an end to the condition. More experienced runners will have developed greater strength and stability in their core running muscles which will help to limit the effects of jiggling on the internal organs; seasoned runners will have developed a greater level of fitness and control over their breathing patterns; and running experience will also provide valuable knowledge regarding what and when to eat.
So, what’s the answer to runner’s stitch? In short, become a fitter runner!