Side Cramps When Running: Everything You Need to Know

If you get side cramps when running, then you know how painful they can be. You might be perplexed about them. You might be wondering why you get them and no one else seems to. Is it something you’re eating? Is it the way you’re running? Are you just naturally prone to them?

Is there anything you can do to make them go away?

The answer to this last is a resounding yes. We’ll go over all of the things you can do here.

What Causes Side Cramps While Running?

Before we dive into the solutions, we must first deal with the causes. When people refer to side cramps, what they usually mean is a side stitch. We’ll use these two terms interchangeably in this article.

A side stitch, also known as ETAP, or Exercise Related Transient Abdominal Pain, presents as a sharp, stabbing, intense pain under the rib cage. Both sides of the abdomen can be affected, but previous research has shown that it’s much more common in the right side.

Let’s take a closer look at what exactly happens to the body when it experiences a side stitch.


As you can see from the above image, the diaphragm is a thin, dome-shaped muscle that sits just below the heart and lungs, at the very bottom of the chest, separating the chest from the abdomen.

When you breathe, this is the muscle that you’re primarily using: whenever you breathe in the lungs expand, causing is forced downward; conversely, when you exhale, your lungs contract, which pulls the diaphragm upward. All the while, it continually contracts.

When there’s a break in this contraction – that is, when the diaphragm experiences a muscle spasm – you experience that as a sharp, shooting pain.

And that’s all it is. Those are the basics of what’s happening every time you get a side cramp when running.

But What Causes the Spasm?

While the science isn’t definitive, there are several theories. One of those theories points to pre-run food choices as the culprit. In other words, it’s thought that if you eat or drink something that’s too acidic or something that can’t be readily absorbed, it can cause you to have side cramps when you run.

Another theory points to the way one breathes. If you take breaths that are too shallow when you run, you’re limiting the amount of oxygen your muscles – including the diaphragm – receive; without adequate oxygen, your muscles get fatigued, which can cause the spasm which results in a side stitch.

Other factors that may contribute are overuse, dehydration, or an electrolyte imbalance.

What Can I Do To Get Rid of a Side Cramp When Still Running?

There’s actually a way to release the cramp while running. And it’s a good thing that there is – because there may come a time, say, when you’re in the middle of a race, or maybe running away from murderers, that you’ll want to will your body to keep going, to keep running.

If you’ve ever experienced it, you know there’s no point in fighting through it. It’s just too painful.

So it follows that in order to make it to the finish line with a side cramp, you have to get rid of it. And to do that, you need to first slow down and then exhale. If you do that, it’ll go away. If you’re experiencing the side cramp on your right, slow down and exhale whenever your left foot hits the ground. And vice versa: if you’re experiencing the side stitch on the left side, slow down and exhale whenever your right foot hits the ground.

That’s all you need to do to get rid of them on the spot, without stopping.


How Do I Prevent My Side From Hurting When I Run?

But to get rid of them completely requires a few habitual changes.

  • First, eat a light breakfast, limiting fiber and fat intake. As we said earlier, some theories promulgate the idea that eating foods that are harder for the body to absorb precipitates side cramps when running.
  • Eat two to three hours before you run. Light power snacks directly before the race are okay, but larger meals should be consumed ahead of time.
  • One mistake rookies and casuals make is that they do not do their warm-ups before exerting themselves. We suggest stretching or yoga.
  • Remember how we said that overuse (or undue strain) is one factor that can cause the spasm that leads to the side stitch? To avoid overusing the diaphragm, you need to learn to pace yourself. When you experience side cramps when running, your body is just giving you a warning: you’re pushing too hard. Start your runs off slow and gradually run faster.
  • Side stitches generally occur in activities in which the upper body is most exerted – think swimming, running, and horseback riding. A stronger core means less rotational movement in the torso, which reduces the risk of cramping. That’s just one more reason to actively strive to strengthen your core.
  • Remember, shallow breathing, as well as irregular breathing, can cause your muscles to be deprived of oxygen, which leads to fatigue, which can lead to a spasm in the diaphragm. Control your breathing; specifically, make sure you’re breathing is even and consistent.

Exercises To Prevent Side Stitches

Below are some stretching exercises that you can (and should) incorporate into your regiment to help you beat side stitches for good. We’ve included videos for your convenience.

The Standing Later Side Stretch

Rising Stomach Stretch

Rotating Stomach Stretch

And there you have it: everything you need to know about those pesky side stitches.

Make sure to leave any questions or concerns in the comments below.


  1. Runtastic
  2. Runner’s World
  3. Stretch Coach
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