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How to get rid of a stitch and what is it?

<woman with stitch>
  • A stitch is also known as exercise-related transient abdominal pain (ETAP)

  • Slowing down during exercise, deep breathing and proper hydration can help stop a stitch

  • The side abdominal pain is common and most runners have experienced it


If you’re a runner you’ve no doubt felt that aching pain in your side and realised it’s a dreaded side stitch. If you’re halfway through your run, you want to know how to get rid of it - and fast.

A stitch is not exclusive to runners; it can occur during almost any physical activity such as playing sports and cycling. This pain is usually caused by pushing yourself too hard, or by having weak abdominal muscles. However, some studies also show that dehydration and eating too close to exercise are big factors in experiencing the painful side stitch.

If you’ve experienced a stitch during exercise, this is everything you need to know about what it is and how to get rid of it.

What is a side stitch?

The medical term for a stitch is exercise-related transient abdominal pain (ETAP). It can be described as a sharp pain or a feeling of muscle cramp on either side of your body, and can occur during many types of physical activity. They are a common side effect of running and other forms of aerobic activity or intense exercise, with a study in 2015 showing that 75% of those who are active have experienced one.

Experts believe the pain is connected to the diaphragm - the muscle which controls our breathing - which can spasm when we overexert the body during exercise. The pain, which can occur on the left or right side of your body, just below the chest, could stop you from exercising if it gets too bad, or slow you down. It’s important to determine what’s causing the stitch and how to stop it, especially if you’re experiencing symptoms regularly.

What causes a stitch?

  • Overexertion - Some experts believe that as the level of exercise intensity increases, it causes a lack of blood flow to the diaphragm which results in a stitch.

  • Weak core muscles - Strong core muscles help to stabilise the whole trunk and are particularly key when running. If you’re new to exercise or you are a beginner runner, strengthening your core muscles should help to minimise the occurrence of a stitch.

  • Dehydration - Many studies show that hydration is one of the key success factors in any sport, with hydration allowing for all round better blood flow. Chloe Trigg, a personal trainer at BLOK, says: “Hydration is key. If you are even the slightest bit dehydrated, your exercise endurance can drop by almost half. Effects of dehydration include changes in blood flow and core temperature, and increased rate of glycogen breakdown in the muscles.”

  • Eating too close to exercise - During a 2005 study in Sydney, a quarter of runners experienced a cramping pain in their sides when they ate too close to a run.

  • Fruit juice or sugary drinks - While many endurance athletes find sugary, hypertonic drinks great for longer sessions, a 2014 trial in the Sports Medicine journal linked these types of high-carbohydrate drinks to the onset of a stitch.

6 ways to get rid of a stitch

  1. Slowing down - You may not want to - especially if you’re an experienced runner - but it’s wise to either slow your pace down or stop completely to take in some deep belly breaths. Once the stitch pain eases, you can start running again.

  2. Hydrating properly - On days when you are running or physically active, it's likely you will need more hydration than on other days, so make sure you are prepared. “How much to hydrate will vary greatly from person to person, the activity, intensity, duration, temperature, and humidity," says Trigg.She continues, “As a rule, aim for two to three litres of water for normal daily activities, and increase this by another 450-750ml per hour when running." Don't wait to feel thirsty, plan ahead and make sure you are constantly topped up. A few sips every 10-15 minutes during a run is a good way to satisfy your water intake, without having to run on a full stomach of water.

  3. Stretching - Stretching down the side of your body could help to get rid of, or alleviate the stitch. Start by raising both arms, hold your hands together above your head and bend to one side for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side. Keep alternating sides until the pain subsides.

  4. Deep breathing - Avoid taking shallow breaths during aerobic exercise. Regulating your breathing pattern and taking long, deep breaths in and out through the nose, or in through the nose and out through the mouth can help to maximise the flow of oxygen to the muscles - including the diaphragm muscle.

  5. Avoid eating too close to exercise - Try to leave at least a one hour window between eating and any cardio exercise such as running. Heavy meals such as lunch or dinner should ideally be eaten two to three hours before exercise. If this isn't possible, aim for easily digestible foods before you set off.

  6. Avoid trigger foods - Drinks that are high in sugar - such as fruit juice - are one common cause of a stitch. Try to avoid these if you can before starting any exercise.


Thankfully a side stitch isn’t anything to worry about, however they can be annoying and disruptive during a training session. Proper breathing technique and mindful nutrition and hydration before and during exercise can significantly reduce the risk of you getting a stitch. At other times, a stitch may be your body's way of regaining the blood flow to your diaphragm. It's important that you listen to your body during your workout and slow down if necessary to alleviate the symptoms.

Frequently asked questions

How long can a side stitch last?

Most side stitches should subside within half an hour to a couple of hours after you’ve finished exercise - the temporary pain can be helped by hydrating with water or a sports drink. If you’ve got a stitch that won’t go away, try and rest. If it lasts for longer than a few hours it may be something more serious so seek medical attention.

How should I breathe when I run?

While running, many experts recommend nose breathing - i.e. breathing in and out through your nose. This helps to calm the nervous system which comes under stress during a run. Nose breathing can feel challenging to start with; if it feels like you can't take on enough oxygen, take a few runs to ease into the breathing pattern by breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, before building up to proper nose breathing. Concentrate on taking deep breaths from the diaphragm.

Should you run through a stitch?

It’s best to slow down if you’re experiencing a stitch when running, rather than running through it. Try some breathing exercises and push into the side where it hurts. If it doesn’t go away, try walking. Stopping to stretch may get rid of the stitch or ease it slightly so you can carry on with your run.