What Causes Side Cramps when Running?

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“You drank too much water.”

Wait, no. “You drank too much water too fast.”

Oh the old days of running at soccer practice when all of the sudden it felt like I was being stabbed in the side of my body.

I remember the times when any kind of prolonged running would almost wish I was being shanked through my right rib cage.

Coaches would always have a reason as to why I was getting these cramps, or side stitches. It usually pertained to water.

Too much, too little, or too quickly. It turns out that none of that was correct.

It has taken me 23 years to learn what causes these god awful stomach cramps in the same place when running and the answer is…. (drum roll please)

Breathing Patterns!

…how anti climactic, right?

Side stitches and cramps affect the vast majority of athletes and exercisers and the cause is something as boring as breathing.

It might not be a world shattering reason, but at least it is simple to fix.

First, I will give you the basics of breathing. I am by no means Captain Breathesalot, but I know enough to assist with this problem.

There are three main centers that the body uses to breathe. They are the diaphragm, the ribcage, and the neck musculature (scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, etc.)

People tend to focus on diaphragmatic breathing because it is usually the most impaired but all three sites should be doing their part. The neck muscles can get really jacked up when they are asked to do too much.

How do you breathe?

If you want to determine how each part is going its job you can just look at how you take deep breaths. Answer the following questions:

Do you shrug your shoulders when breathing in?

            If so then your traps are too involved in the process. You should not be shrugging.

Does your ribcage inflate during inhalation?

            This is a good thing. The rib cage should inflate to a point when breathing in.

Do you push your stomach out when taking a breath?

            Lie on your back and put your hand on your stomach. It should rise on inhalation and lower on exhalation. This means that you are using your diaphragm.

These three criteria are not the whole equation but they must all be in order to get yourself started. If you are lacking in one of the above scenarios practicing good mechanics is necessary to transfer to an activity.

How do you breathe during activity?

If you are getting cramps or stitches in your neck or your side, then that is the area that is doing all of the work.

Neck stitches mean that the ribcage and the diaphragm are not pulling their weight. Practice by lying on your back and expanding the ribcage while pushing your stomach out.

Side stitches have more to do with symmetry. This means that one side (the side that is cramping) is doing all of the work. I used to get cramps on my right side, so my left side was not functioning properly.

This can be due to misalignment but practicing breathing on the underachieving side can work to correct the problem.

Lie on the side that often cramps. Take a big breath in and try to inflate the rib cage on the side facing the ceiling. Practicing this will teach the poor functioning side to do its job.

When running, it is important to keep good posture. If you are favoring one side then there is no way that you can breathe properly.

Run with neutral alignment and focus on deep breaths to avoid the knife in the side. If you see yourself leaning away from the cramping side then you must fix your posture first to allow for deep breathing.

So this most likely was not the mind blowing, Nobel Prize winning solution to the cramping issue. Luckily, it is a simple solution.

Practice alignment and breathing to improve your performance.

I find this topic very interesting and I would like to hear any success stories.

If you are able to get rid of your cramping from better breathing practices, send me an email, message, tweet, etc. I want to hear about it.