One of the most frequently asked questions by new runners is about what to do when you get a stitch and how to avoid getting one. I decided to do a little online research…

What causes a stitch?

In my experience I have found a correlation between drinking too much water or sports drink during a run, especially when running on the treadmill, and getting a stitch. My thoughts are that it could be because gulping too much water temporarily disrupts your breathing and the cold water causes your stomach to cramp. I’ve also found that trying to hold the body as upright and as straight as possible whilst trying to run through a stitch is, for me, is the best way to deal with it. This is all my opinion, based on experience. So I did a little research to see if there was any scientific theory on the cause of stitches….

There appears to be quite a lot of different opinions and theories out there, however they all focus on a few main causes/reasons. A stitch is essentially the muscles in the diaphragm cramping. The diaphragm is the muscle that separates the abdomen from the heart and lungs, it is one of the main muscles involved in breathing. Some of the suggestions that I have found about what causes the diaphragm to cramp are:

  • Increased physical activity
  • Lack of oxygen
  • Eating too close to exercising causing air and gasses to become trapped below the diaphragm

It is the BBC Sport Academy’s theories and explanations that I like the best as they support my personal observations!

Runhelenrun stitch theories

Theory one suggests that exercise causes the blood to move away from the diaphragm to the limbs. (I think I need to interject here. Blood doesn’t move away from things; the blood vessels don’t get up and move to increase blood flow to most the important organs. You probably know this already, but I felt the need to clarify! The blood vessels dilate and contract to alter the volume of blood going to each part of the body. When we eat, the blood vessels around our digestive organs dilate, increasing the blood flow to where it its needed most.) The theory goes on to say that the reduction in blood supply to the diaphragm causes it to cramp.

Theory two suggests that a stitch is caused by fluids that the body finds hard to digest; this causes a tug on the ligaments connected to the diaphragm. This supports what I have found in my own experiences with drinking too much whilst running. The action of drinking may also have an effect on developing a stitch as it changes the breathing pattern and the use of the diaphragm.

How to prevent a stitch

The more your fitness improves the less likely you are to experience a lot of stitches. I have no proof for this but, based on experience and the two theories above, I think this makes sense. Leaving enough time between eating and exercising and not drinking too much whilst running should also help.

What to do if you get a stitch

When researching the subject online I found lots of (often conflicting) suggestions of things to do when you get a stitch:

  • Touching your toes
  • stopping running / keep running
  • slow down / speeding up
  • walk
  • take deep breathes / take quick breaths

…and many more.

I think that you need to find what works for you and keep doing that. Perhaps try some of the suggestions above and let me know what works?

Do you have a tried and tested method to prevent or stop a stitch? You can use the comments section to share your top tips!

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