Help me enjoy running again
February 14, 2012 12:29 AM   Subscribe

I'm a beginner trying to get serious about running, but evil side stitches are thwarting my progress. What is causing them and how can I prevent them or relieve them once they start?

I'm a very, very beginner runner. I'm happy if I can do 5K in 35 minutes on a treadmill. I know that's nothing, and perhaps most runners wouldn't even consider that to be real running, but I've finally turned from someone who absolutely despised running to someone who loves it and can't wait to be able to run longer and faster.

A few weeks ago during a routine treadmill session, I developed a nasty side stitch on my right side about 15 minutes into the run. I tried to run it out but it kept getting worse. I pressed my fingers into the stitch, but that only alleviated the pain a little bit and the pain came back immediately once I took my fingers off. I tried running with my arms over my head, I tried breathing out only when my left foot hit the ground, and I tried breathing out slowly by forcing my breath through pursed lips. Fifteen minutes later, it hurt too much to breathe and I had to stop. I gave it a day, but the stitch came back again, about 15 minutes into the next run.

The day after that I woke up with a little bout of piriformis syndrome which had me limping around for the next few days. I waited about a week for the piriformis issue to sort itself out, then got back to the gym again. The side stitch returned again in the same spot about 15 minutes in. This time I tried walking it off for 5 minutes, but soon after I resumed running the side stitch came back in full force. The next time, the same thing again, and the next. I've also noticed that I'm starting to feel the stitch while just walking at a brisk pace. It's not as painful as when I'm running, but I can feel it. This especially bothers me because I'm accustomed to walking everywhere.

I'm so frustrated by these side stitches. I used to come back from the gym floating on a cloud of endorphins, but now I return feeling defeated and disappointed that I'm not making any progress. I've been scouring the web for tips on how to get rid of side stitches, but so far nothing I've tried has helped. Is this normal for all beginner runners? Is this just a phase I have to get past? Or what might I be doing wrong? What else should I try?
posted by keep it under cover to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Also, I've tried waiting from 1 to 5 hours after eating to run and it hasn't made a difference.
posted by keep it under cover at 12:36 AM on February 14, 2012

Probably has to do with your breathing. Try deep breathes instead of shallow breathes.
posted by nickrussell at 12:41 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

5K in 35 minutes
That's pretty good actually. Respect.
posted by krilli at 12:47 AM on February 14, 2012 [10 favorites]

My googling about stitches before has told me that no-one knows what causes them, and that they can even be a problem for professional athletes who can choose to run through them... but apparently there is no conclusive reason for them (lots of theories) or method of solving them that is universally applicable except waiting.
posted by jojobobo at 1:02 AM on February 14, 2012

Is this normal for all beginner runners? Is this just a phase I have to get past? Or what might I be doing wrong? What else should I try?

Absolutely. It is just a phase. Once your diaphragm and abdominal muscles gain a little endurance, it'll pass. Slower, longer runs, with walking breaks as necessary. There is no shame in walking. Some runners get relief from side cramps by bending over forward, but this never worked for me.

Good for you though. If you're getting side cramps it means you're working your body enough for it to complain. Hang in there. Measure your results in months and not weeks.
posted by three blind mice at 1:10 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

don't sell yourself short, 5k in 35 minutes for a workout is pretty good.

For the stitches - I have no science, but I would try just running slower for a while. Or change it up and do some interval work, short sprints then a few minutes jog to recover. How often are you running, and are you doing the same thing every time?

I do think you'll just need to hang in there and it will go away.
posted by jacalata at 1:28 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

My best friend has had the stitch problem since we were kids and she just recently tried to get back into running and fight it. Dubious or not, she found someone talking about the impact on your internal organs when you run, and how the forces can cause them to kind of bounce around, with the implication that that causes the stitches. But, less dubiously, it said that to deal with this, you need to modify how your diaphragm moves with respect to the rest of your organs in the timing of your steps, so: change how you breathe. Which "step" do you breathe on, your right or your left? Whatever she was doing, she worked to reverse it, and now she can run 5ks on weekends without any stitches.

So. Pay attention to your breathing, change it up in different ways, and see how each one affects the stitch issue. And good luck!
posted by olinerd at 1:41 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're almost certainly running too fast, and - for me, personally - it's not just eating, but drinking too much fluid close to a run is a guaranteed way of doing it.

Reality check:

1. You only ran a few times with a stitch; a few squiff runs is nothing. It could quite easily resolve itself in a week or two. If you take up this hobby seriously you may have stretches weeks or months where it's hard or impossible to run. Keep trying, if you're interested.

2. If you're getting a stitch from walking, something is wack. That may not be a stitch, a trip to the physiotherapist could be worthwhile.

Long story short: Slow down. In my experience of running, the answer to most problems, most of the time, is simply to slow down. You can do other shit, but if you just slow down many problems will resolve themselves.
posted by smoke at 1:54 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding taking deep breaths. It might also help to use your steps to keep track of breathing. I usually do 2 steps in, 2 steps out when I'm running faster and around 3 steps in, 3 steps out when running slower.

I also find that whenever I get stitches, my core is also really tense. Once I tell myself to relax a bit, everything straightens itself out again. Strengthening your core probably won't hurt either so do some planks after you run too.

As for your piriformis syndrome: stretch everything (quads, hamstrings, hips, calves, etc) after each run. Getting into the habit of using a foam roller early on will also help with the soreness and other aches and pains you might encounter.
posted by astapasta24 at 2:09 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've found stretching helps prevent a stitch when I run, both forward and back and side to side.

Also, 5km in 35 minutes is excellent. After 9 months of running, I'm still around the 40min mark for 5km, but my excuse is that I'm middle-aged, fat and, at 4ft11 my stride is ridiculously short.
posted by essexjan at 2:29 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Congrats! You've found yourself a rewarding out...addicting hobby. I am so proud of you for getting out there, and continuing to get back out there when it hurts.

The following is totally anecdotal notes from 10+ years as a middle and long distance runner.

- Don't bend over. Always breathe with your head above your heart. This often means squatting when you're really tired.

- I was told to tighten my abs (or the muscle, if you can isolate it) as hard as possible, and exhale deep and fast. This seems to work in mild cases.

- Relax. There is some good advice about breathing on this thread, but I can't imagine thinking about breathing for anything longer than 400m. What's important is to breathe deeply and evenly, which for me means not really thinking about breathing. If you can find a "yoga for runners" class or book, fantastic.

- Strengthen your core. Running needs to be met with strength training. Russian twists, back extensions, any stability ball routine, etc etc. Core strength will minimize the likelihood of fatiguing in such a way you get cramps. And, you'll look great! Running along, though great cardio, is not a complete workout.

That said, side stitches happen to everyone and I feel you, they are awful. My most memorable was 800m before the end of a marathon. That 800m was worse than the entire 25.6 miles preceding it. Sometimes you'll just have to ignore and run through it. Good luck!
posted by keasby at 3:00 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Touch your toes. (You realise that by that I mean stand with your legs straight, feet together, and bend down to reach and ideally touch your toes with the tips of your fingers.)

YMMV, but it works for me.
posted by Segundus at 4:03 AM on February 14, 2012

If you're getting stitches, slow down. Speed will come.
posted by xingcat at 4:15 AM on February 14, 2012

Try this:when breathing, breathe in a half breath when your left foot hits the ground, then another half breath when your right foot hits the ground, then breathe out the next time your left foot hits the ground,
posted by flutable at 4:18 AM on February 14, 2012

A gym teacher once told me stiches were a result of breathing too shallow. Especially when you are warming up, be sure to exhale fully. Helps to exhale by blowing out your mouth. Works most of the time for me.

Once I've got a stitch, there's nothing I can do to get rid of it except slow way down.
posted by skidoom at 4:24 AM on February 14, 2012

Yep, slow down, or alternate running and walking. Good on ya!
posted by penguin pie at 4:29 AM on February 14, 2012

I agree with the advice to slow down. Most of your running should feel relatively easy-- I like to describe it as your body feeling like it's on 'cruise control', you don't have to think particularly hard or really try to maintain a certain pace.

Try different breathing patterns-- for most of my easy running I do a 4/4 breathing pattern (breathe in for left/right/left/right, breathe out for left/right/left/right) but for faster runs I go to a 2/2 or 3/3 pattern. When I used to get side stitches I would try the 'exhale really hard on every right step' trick and that worked fairly well.

If switching to a walk doesn't help the stitch go away, you may find you need to schedule walk breaks (ie run 1/2 mile, walk 1 minute) to prevent stitches. As time goes on you can increase the length of the running, but for now it may be what you need to prevent stitches.
posted by matcha action at 4:30 AM on February 14, 2012

Runner here. 5k in 35 minutes is terrific, and they may be the cause of the stitches because if you've never run before, you're actually running pretty fast and while your legs can handle the pace, your lungs need to learn to accommodate this new speed. My guess is that you may be breathing a lot more shallowly than you realize.

I would work on taking FULL and deep breaths; it may slow you down initially, but that's okay. You can begin to incorporate more speed work as your body learns to adapt to running.

Stick with it though, sounds like you're doing great!
posted by kinetic at 4:31 AM on February 14, 2012

I've heard heard that cold water can cause stitches, versus room-temperature water. I have experienced side stitches when running if I've tried to run too soon after eating.'re question made me remember, oh yeah, side stitches exist! I am definitely not a pro runner, but I haven't had stitches in a while. I think you need to listen to your body, but if you can push through it, you'll be fine.
posted by shortyJBot at 4:32 AM on February 14, 2012

I agree with the comments that you might be overexterting yourself. How do you feel after your 5 km in 35 mins? Are you ok or are you falling over in a heap? It is much better to finish a run comfortably then exhaust yourself.

But assuming you are running within your capabilities there are a couple of other things to try.

One of the theories on what causes stiches involves the synchronisation of one's breathing with their running gait. Most runners naturally breathe in time with the steps they take. As a result they might, say, always breathe out when landing on their right foot etc.

There is a theory that, over the course of a run, this causes some slight internal bruising.

So if you are getting a stitch, try breathing out on the 'opposite' foot to what you have been exhaling on. I have found this helps, (albeit temporarilly).

Also letting out a series of short grunts from the diaphragm is also meant to help. YMMV

I personally used to find that my stitches also seemed to be related to how dehydrated I was, and what I had consumed during the day. I found that by cutting my intake of soda during the day seemed to help.

Good luck!!
posted by TheOtherGuy at 5:39 AM on February 14, 2012

I had this problem, and I can always avoid it happening if I do 20 to 30 crunches before running. It's easy and quick, but seems to work. I get side stitches every time I forget.
posted by dreamphone at 5:51 AM on February 14, 2012

Slow down.

Get off the treadmill and run outside.

Drink more water.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:40 AM on February 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Stretching my abs before running helps me. Side to side stretches, and upward dog stretches. One of my friends also says that once she gets side stitches, putting her hands on the back of her head and running like that for a minute helps. I used to get side stitches a lot when I fist started running, but now as long as I run a couple of times a month, I never get them. Its either the preventative stretching, or my body got more used to running now and I'd stronger. So don't give up!
posted by at 7:05 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Try breathing when the RIGHT foot hits the ground (or whatever side the pain is on. This is what works for me). Also, I get them when I'm not exhaling enough. So, I'm trying to BREATHE REALLY DEEP when I run, but I'm holding all that air in.

When you get a stitch, immediately slow down (but don't stop or walk), count off your breaths so that you're exhaling when the foot on the same side as the pain hits the ground, and consciously try to exhale MORE air than you are taking in. Do this for 30 seconds to a minute, then begin breathing more normally - so try to inhale and exhale in similar amounts. Reassess your pain and go from there. Don't pass out! If you can tell you don't have a lot of excess air in your lungs, don't try this!
posted by peep at 8:50 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Like someone said above, when a stitch hits, try to *relax* rather than concentrate on making it go away. Recognize the stitch but don't try to fight it- let it take over for a bit if you have to, and then try to visualize tightness in the area where you have pain loosening up. Roll your shoulders, drop your arms by your side for a moment, shake out your hands, anything to get reflexive tightness to stop happening. Relax your breathing rather than trying to modulate it, and let the stitch work itself out. There's no need to worry or panic, and both those things just exacerbate the problem. Usually a stitch is just a gas pain or muscle spasm that is relieved by relaxing. Also, as you get fitter stitches will become far less frequent.

I used to be a competitive marathon racer, and so myself and everyone I trained with or raced against was no stranger to stitches. We'd be able to tell when someone we were racing with was experiencing them (otherwise known as the main culprit behind a "bad patch") because of the above techniques for coping with them- techniques that really do work for the majority of runners. It was rare to see anyone not recover or fall back very far back or drop out completely due to a stitch, they just had to work through it.

my wild-ass guess is running on a treadmill might induce stitches more often since there's fewer natural shifts in exertion, foot-strike, and body position- all those things act as deterrents to rigid form and/or breathing
posted by stagewhisper at 9:47 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd always heard that stitches are a dehydration thing.
posted by ldthomps at 11:27 AM on February 14, 2012

If you can do some of your runs outside, then finding a hill to run up may help immediately. Doing that always makes my side stitches go away; I think the change in my breathing patterns and pace is what does it. You could also experiment with changing your pace on the treadmill (faster or slower) or going to another type of cardio machine.
posted by _cave at 12:00 PM on February 14, 2012

The advice to slow down rings very true... I've been very eager to improve my speed, maybe a bit too eager. I had felt "stuck" at a very slow pace for a while, and then suddenly that pace felt really easy. I got bored running at that pace long before I got tired, so I sped up (too much possibly) and then the stitches started soon after. It does make sense that certain aspects of my fitness are lagging way behind, as I had been mostly inactive for so long.

Would it be better to do intervals once a week, rather than try to sustain a faster pace throughout the length of a run? Or should I forget about speed at this stage and just focus on running longer? The point about getting off the treadmill and getting outside is well taken, but I have a fussy knee that I was hoping to strengthen some more before I take to the pavement. I am doing squats and lunges to that end. I will definitely add some more core exercises to my routine.

Thanks for all the encouragement too! It means a lot to me :)
posted by keep it under cover at 12:20 AM on February 15, 2012

The general wisdom is that you should be either trying to increase mileage, or trying to increase speed, never both at the same time. I personally find this really, truly, deeply hard to follow but nonetheless suspect it's quite solid so far as wisdom goes.

What I would suggest, if you are weak-willed like me, is to concentrate on one or the other, rather than banning any increase in speed, or urge to run a bit further. You will find as you continue to run you will naturally be able to go further or faster anyway, but if you're steadily increasing mileage, let it come incrementally, and slowly, rather than killing yourself on hills/intervals once/twice a week.

That's my take anyway. You'll get through this one, believe me, and get stronger and also more confident/comfortable with the minor setbacks. :)
posted by smoke at 1:00 AM on February 15, 2012

I had THE BEST WORKOUT OF MY LIFE today! I combined several of the tips I got here (thank you all!!) I started my run much more slowly, and kept a slower pace throughout the run. When the side stitch started creeping up, I exhaled as hard as I could for several breaths and that helped hold off the stitch for a while. If the stitch kept on coming, I cranked the incline on the treadmill waaaay up (trying to emulate _cave's advice to find a hill to run), and miracle of miracles, the stitch was completely gone in less than a minute. I continued running while varying the speed and incline every few minutes. Friends, I ran for an hour straight and felt fantastic throughout. I have never, ever been able to do that. The last 20 minutes of the run were so comfortable, I felt like I could've kept going and going, but I got scared that I'd overdo it and hurt myself so I stopped at 8K. Afterward I took my time stretching everything. Tomorrow I'll work on my core and let my legs and lungs have a rest.
posted by keep it under cover at 9:42 PM on February 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

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