Mental Notes: Stitches. Forget About ‘Em.

Photo by jessebezz

You’re running along and everything’s fine and then all of a sudden: BAM! You get a stitch, one of the most annoying things that can happen to a runner. They have nothing to do with yout fitness or how prepared you are for a race. They seemingly come out of nowhere to plague otherwise great runs and races.

I can’t tell you how many of my otherwise great runs or races have been ruined by a stitch. Stitches are something I have struggled with mightily throughout my running career. In fact, I could hardly breathe through the pain as I walked and cursed the last several miles of my PR marathon with a debilitating stitch. I had to jog in a 4 mile race with a stitch once. I even went through several months of training during which I had a stitch on every run. Every single run for months!

I have read possibly every article and tried every tip–and there are many. I’ve tried jamming my finger into my side. I’ve tried exhaling as the foot opposite the stitchy side struck the ground. I’ve tried deep belly breathing. I’ve tried stopping and stretching my side. I’ve tried tying my shirt so tight around my waist I could hardly breathe. I’ve tried chiropractic treatments. You name it and I’ve tried it to get rid of a stitch.

Animation of a diaphragm exhaling and inhaling
Animation of a diaphragm exhaling and inhaling. A stitch is a cramp in that green line. Photo via Wikipedia.

After years of struggling I have finally found something that works for me. So what’s this trick to get rid of stitches?

FORGET ABOUT THEM.

Seriously. That’s it. In my experience it’s the only thing that works. Stitches for me always come during times of high-stress. It might be tension directly associated with performance anxiety, as in the case of my PR marathon and the 4 mile race, or it could be life stress gone out of control like during the long stretches of stitchy training runs. Stress and tension are the common thread connecting all my stitch experiences.

In the past when I got a stitch I’d become even more tense and stressed out and I’d make it worse.ย  I’ve now learned that sometimes a little stress or tension is unavoidable and a stitch might come on. Although stitches are always annoying, I accept that I will get them from time-to-time. I had one for the first 7 miles of my fall 2011 marathon, but it didn’t affect my pace and it didn’t bother me much at all. I ignored it and it went a way. It’s an afterthought to my race report and not the defining event like the stitch was during my PR marathon.

Yes, the key is to ignore the stitch away. But how does one go about ignoring something that is obnoxious and hurts? Here are the tactics I use:

1. I start counting to 100 on every other footfall. That sounds really boring, I realize. But it works. I then start focusing on my footfalls and not the stitch. This is my go-to stitch eraser. It works really well for me most of the time. It’s also a great tactic to get through any kind of boredom or pain in a workout or race. It fills the mind with benign boringness so the negative tension-inducing thoughts can’t creep in.

2. Talk to the stitch and then focus on something else. I know this sounds weird, but it also works. If I get a stitch I might say, “Oh hi stitch. Haven’t seen you around here. Look, I’m busy and don’t want to deal with you. I’m going to focus on listening to my breath and you can go away now.” Then I’ll focus on listening to my breathing and before you know it, the stitch is gone.

3. Sometimes I cannot stop thinking about the stitch without more help. This is especially true on the treadmill. If I have an easy run on tap I will do “intervals” of 2:00 at the faster end of my easy range with 3:00 at the slow end of my range. This is just enough excitement to take my mind off of the stitch and it’s usually gone within the first interval. It might also be the pace differences as I’ve noticed if I have a stitch in a warm-up it will go away once I start running faster for my track workout or tempo.

Those are the distraction techniques that work for me, but you can repeat a mantra, sing a song, talk to a friend or yourself. The list of distraction techniques is endless. If you are like me and prone to side-stitches experiment until you find what works for you and you’ll be on your way to forgetting about stitches for good!

HAVE YOU STRUGGLED WITH STITCHES? DO YOU HAVE A STITCH-BUSTING TECHNIQUE THAT WORKS?

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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5 comments

  1. Mind over matter in a big way! I have struggled with stitches in the past and have done all the “normal” things to get rid of them. But it has never occurred to me to try ignoring them. Thanks for some new ammunition!

  2. Well said. I agree that distraction seems to be the best way to get rid of a stitch. I’ve tried the breathing in stride, and it will occasionally work for me, but I think it’s because I’m directing my focus elsewhere. Cheers!