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What Causes Side Stiches And Stomach Cramping During Exercise?

I had a client ask me this question yesterday when I had finished up my workout. It’s a great question and I realized it would make for a good blog post. There’s lots of speculation among exercise physiologists and physicians on what really causes side stiches and cramping while running.

Truth be told I don’t believe there is one answer as several things can contribute to abdominal area cramping. While all muscle cramping can induced by electrolyte imbalances, typically you’ll see this more in your leg muscles and not the abdominals. This isn’t to say your nutrition can’t be a factor, just likely not the main trigger.

From my experience and research on this subject I’ll narrow down for you the most likely causes.

Side Stich Culprit #1: Faulty Breathing Patterns

This tops the list as the most likely culprit with all things being equal. A lot of veteran runners will tell you that cramps can come and go by changing your breathing. Typically it’s a sign of breathing too shallowly. This is also called “high lung” breathing as you’re not getting full deep breaths from your lungs.

This can partly be due to conditioning, which is why side stiches are more common with people just starting out with a workout or running routine. However, even experienced fitness enthusiasts and runners can get abdominal cramping. It could be triggered by being overly tight with your psoas or other deep core muscles. All the muscles in your lumbar-pelvic and abdominal area work together as one chain and imbalances could certainly impact respiration.

While all of this needs to be taken into consideration from the big picture standpoint, there’s obviously not much you can do about tight muscles during your run, race, or workout. When you experience a side-stich or muscle cramping try and pay attention to your breathing.

Attempt to take deeper breaths and pull from the lower part of your lungs. Inhale deeply through your nose and exhale fully out your mouth for a few breaths. Shake your arms out, attempt to loosen up a little. You may be overly rigid and tight in your running position.

Side Stich Culprit #2: Drinking Too Much Water Prior Or During Workout

Make sure you avoid drinking large amounts of water PRIOR to your workout or run. This creates pressure and increases the exertion on the abdominal walls. After all you’ve got a bunch of water sloshing around in your stomach.

While you’re running the bouncing is simply going to increase intra-abdominal pressure with excess water in your stomach making it harder to take a deeper breath. Bottom line is stay hydrated through the day and don’t drink a bunch of water all at once prior to an event or workout.

Side Stich Culrpit #3: Consuming Too Much Food Prior To Workout Or Run

Same as above. Obviously a light pre-workout or event snack like a piece of fruit , granola bar, etc, consumed more than 30 minutes out will not be much of an issue. What you want to avoid however is eating a heavy meal prior to working out or running.

Minimize the volume of food in your stomach. You can’t get fuel from heavy starches, proteins, and fats consumed shortly before physical activity anyways. Your body will benefit most from a small amount of simple carbohydrates.

About 20-30 grams is plenty to fuel you through even the most intense workouts. Your body can pull from glycogen and fat energy reserves as your workout continues for longer periods of time.

The “Forgotten Abdominal Exercise” that works best to prevent side-stiches during exercise

As a certified Charleston fitness trainer I have all my clients perform exercises that develop core strength and stability. The best exercises are things like planks and chops and not sit-up’s and crunches. You want to minimize exercises that overly work the rectus abdominus and hip flexors. However, there is one exercise that would be my top recommendation for eliminating side stiches and cramping. It’s called the “stomach vacuum.”

Early fitness pioneers regularly used this exercise to develop a well-defined and strong core. Sadly though it’s been lost in an age where seated ab machines and gadgets are the in thing to use. I’ve written extensively on why these machines are basically a complete waste of your time and can actually be counterproductive. See my post on “Top 5 Machines To Avoid In A Health Club.”

To perform the stomach vacuum you’ll want to begin by getting on all fours. Take a few deep breaths by breathing in through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. On the third deep breath, fully exhale ALL the air from your lungs but don’t take a breath in yet.

With all the air expelled from your lungs, pull your stomach up and in towards your diaphragm. Hold for 5-10 seconds then take a strong inhale releasing your abdominal muscles. Repeat this practice 4-5 times as part of your regular core and abdominal training. Trust me it’s a hidden gem in core and abdominal training.

Here’s a video that shows the stomach vacuum being performed with coaching tips by a fitness professional.

Follow the tips above and you’ll be on your way to experiencing less stomach cramping and side-stiches while exercising. Hope this helps.

Shane Doll is a certified personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Fitness Training Studios. If you’re looking for a personal trainer in Charleston, you can receive a no-obligations personal training trial and consultation without risking a dime. Over 1000 Charleston area residents have transformed their bodies following our unique burst training workouts and simplified nutrition programs. Experience the Shaping Concepts difference today.

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Category: Fitness Training.