It has happened to most of us. You’re running along, doing your thing, perhaps feeling great, when all of the sudden it hits: the dreaded side ache. You know the drill. It’s like a screwdriver right under the ribcage. Sometimes walking a bit helps but then you try to start back up and it comes right back. So you may be asking yourself ‘why does my side hurt when I run?‘
What causes this pain? Can it be prevented? Am I hurting myself if I trying to push past the pain? Is it really physical or mostly mental?
What Causes Side Stitches
First, know you are not alone. Side stitches are much more common in athletes who participate in a sustained cardiovascular activity such as running. Some research points to a diaphragm spasm causing the pain. Since your diaphragm is so important in breathing and seeing as how activities such as running often bring us experiencing shortness of breath, it stands to reason that when we tax our breathing this could cause some discomfort.
This is a reason why new runners and those amping up their speed and/or distance are often more susceptible to this side pain.
Eating a heavy meal prior to running causes side stitches in some people. If you experience side aches and are eating directly prior to eating, try moving that meal. Another thing you could try is to simply eat less before running. If you are a morning runner, this may be easier to accomplish than if you run other times of the day.
Fluids cause problems for some runners, also. It is often a delicate balance between choosing to hydrate and taking in too much. In particular, sugary beverages are more likely to cause side aches for some athletes. Particularly if you are not running long distances, water may be the best choice.
How Do You Prevent Side Aches When Running?
Benjamin Franklin’s adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is as true today as it was when he originally verbalized the thought. The key here is to try to prevent side pain before it happens. How can you do that?
The first way to prevent side stitches is to practice good posture. If you are hunched over, it makes it difficult for you to breathe properly. Proper posture is a great way not only to alleviate this problem but also to work on running mechanics.
From a dietary perspective, some athletes find if they stay away from heavy meals before running they are less likely to have terrible side pain. More specifically, high fat and/or fiber foods seem more likely to cause these problems.
Athletes should also be careful not to increase either their mileage or intensity too quickly. If you try to run considerably further than your body is used to, that could cause side cramps. Also, running at a very hard effort can cause discomfort. The rule of thumb is not to add more than 10% of your weekly total each week.
If you are new to speedwork and it causes a side ache, you may want to shorten the distance you are running. For example, if you are attempting 800 repeats at 85% effort for the first time and you get the side pain early in the workout, ask yourself if you have already tried 400 repeats at the same effort. If you have not, try shifting gears. While it is admirable to have goals, you also need to set yourself up for success!
Did you know that strengthening your core is a great way to prevent a side ache? The stronger your core, the less likely you are to experience this sharp pain when you run.
Should You Run When Your Side Hurts?
The question always arises, “Should I run through a side stitch?” Sometimes it is difficult to ascertain if the pain is a harmless side stitch, that generalized pain that we all feel when pushing ourselves hard, or pain caused by an injury.
“No pain, no gain,” is a popular saying. On the one hand, you do have to push yourself in order to better your athletic performance. If you only workout within your comfort zone, whether you are running, swimming, cycling, weight lifting, or engaging in some other activity, you will stop seeing gains. However, if you push yourself you are bound to experience discomfort, perhaps even pain.
The key is to determine what is natural discomfort that comes from pushing yourself from what is a warning that you perhaps need to slow your roll a bit.
Most experts agree that you won’t hurt yourself further if you run through a side ache. Let’s face it: in order to hit a PR (personal record), you have to push beyond your comfort zone. As an athlete, excellence hurts. However, you need to be smart. Here’s where knowing, and listening to, your own body is helpful.
What To Do When It Hits…
When the pain hits, you can always just slow down a little. Sometimes if you just ease up on the pace some, the discomfort will subside. For some people, slowing down a bit helps. For others, they do find it necessary to slow to a walk before experiencing relief.
Applying pressure in the pained area also can offer relief. It is as simple as it sounds, push into the sore spot.
Taking a moment to stop and stretch can also help. If you think about stretches that would lengthen the side and core area, those often offer relief. Putting your arms above your head and leaning forward then slightly backward can help with the side pain.
There are many breathing techniques that can alleviate side pain. For many runners, breathing on a cadence helps. Think about breathing in and out on a cadence. One example is to breathe in for two steps (or footfalls) and to breathe out on the third step. This has you inhaling deeply.
Another option is to breathe in and out on even footfalls. Try breathing in for four footfalls and out for four footfalls. If this doesn’t offer relief, try breathing in for three footfalls and out for three footfalls. Although these are common practices, it isn’t clearly understood why certain cadence practices work for some and not for others. What matters, however, is if it works for you.
Putting It All Together
So to put it all together, there are many things to do to prevent and handle side pain. From a prevention perspective, you should be certain to be working on your core, be aware of your intake of fluid and hydration, and don’t increase your pace or mileage too quickly.
If the side ache does hit, you can try breathing techniques, slow down, push the painful spot and/or try to stretch until it subsides. As an athlete, you should constantly be assessing things within your own body to determine if it is pain you should push through or pain that pulls you up short. In the end, only you can read your own body.