The Truth About Side Stitches

imageStitches suck and they don’t limit themselves to kids running laps in gym class after guzzling too much Hi-C at lunch. Stitches can affect even the most fit or even elite runners among us. Stitches have been a problem for me periodically since I started running and if stitches bother you from time-to-time you know how annoying and painful they can be.

Now we’ve all seen the articles: “What You Can Do to Overcome Stitches,” “How to Keep Stitches Away,” “5 Tricks to Eliminate a Side Stitch!” We’ve all probably clicked on them too, only to find tactics we’ve already tried that never actually work:

  • Stab your hand into the stitch.
  • Breathe out when the foot on the opposite side of your body strikes the ground.
  • Don’t drink or eat before a run.
  • Buy this expensive ____.
  • Bla bla bla.

But swear at your computer no more! Below, I reveal the truth about side stitches, based on recently released scientific articles. This is going to blow your mind.

You ready?

The truth about side stitches is that no one really knows why you get them and no one really knows how to make them go away. That’s right. No one knows. Not one book or article or coach.

Cue the facepalm.

So what the hell are you supposed to do if you’re suffering from them? As someone who has periodically battled against stitches, I feel your frustration. In fact, my PR marathon was several minutes slower than it “should” have been because I spent precious time walking and swearing at a stitch from mile 19 onward.

While our experiences are not backed by science, science still isn’t helping us at this point either, so we might as well talk about our personal experiences coping with stitches. Maybe together we can help each other figure out how to avoid or deal with stitches once and for all! I’ll start.

Through lots of trial and error, most of which proved none of the conventional fixes really worked for me, I found two things that almost always get rid of my stitches.

1. Changing the pace up and down. For some reason, I seem to get stitches a lot on easy treadmill runs. What I’ve found is changing the pace every few minutes from 0.5 – 1.0 miles per hour faster and then slower and then faster and then slower, makes the stitch go away. I suspect it has something to do with the change in breathing patterns, but whatever. On the roads, throwing in a few short strides is similarly effective.

2. Mind over matter. Forgetting about the stitch makes it go away. It’s kind of like hiccups in that regard. I find if I start getting one, if I then count every other left foot-strike up to 100 and then start over, I can refocus my attention from the annoyance of the stitch to the counting. I have managed stitches from blowing up and even gotten rid of them this way, in both races and training runs.

Other things I’ve noticed? I tend to get stitches more when I’m stressed out about something. I also tend to get them more the week before my period. I also tend to get them when I’m tired during a run and talking, like at the end of a long run.

As time has gone on, my stitch attacks have grown further apart and are far less frequent, although I still get them occasionally. Hopefully, they never interfere with a big race again.

How about you? What’s your personal experience with stitches?

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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  1. My favorite- a 2:29 marathon buddy suggested that I run with my hands in the air to make the stitch go away. Of course, this doesn’t work. But he’s fast enough I figured he must know something. Apparently, what he knows is how to make me look like an idiot while running.

    Agreed that stress and tightening up seems to make stitches worse. That said, it’s hard to relax once they are there.

    1. Seriously! Haha! There’s so much crap about side stitches because there’s no good science – so basically we get voodoo instead. I swear by the “take your mind off of it approach”. Try it and let me know if it works!

  2. I’m prone to side stitches. Things that help me are having a good warm up, slowing down a little bit as soon as I notice that I’m having a side stitch (speeding it up makes it worse), and if the side stitch persists firmly grabbing the area where the side stitch is happening and breathing deeply.

  3. In the past, I’ve almost never had issues with side stitches.. Recently though, I’ve started getting side stitches in races (and only in races). Thankfully, I’ve been able to coax them out after a mile or so, but it costs me 15-30 seconds/mile. A few times, the stitches have come soon after taking fuel or drinking water, so I’ve started reducing my intake out of fear a stitch will come. That has been ok this spring as I’ve focused on 10 miles and half marathons, but won’t cut it for a fall marathon. I’m planning to focus more on taking water and gels on the run to get my body more accustomed to that, but will try some of these strategies as well! Thanks for the great post!

  4. I agree with changing the pace. It seems so counter intuitive; I always want to slow down when a stitch strikes, but if I can force myself to speed up a notch, it usually goes away.

    One time I had a stitch so bad in a 10K my side hurt for days after. Someone said it could be because my core was weak; I’m not sure I get that connection, but I did up my core routine eventually anyway (unrelated to this) and haven’t had as many problems since. (Knocks on wood…)