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Why Do I Get a Cramp When I Run?

Cramping Up in Your Side Every Time You Run? An Expert Explains What's Going On

One of the most challenging parts of running is dealing with the pesky stitch in your side that inevitably shows up, no matter how much you stretch beforehand. It's the kind of cramp that nearly takes your breath away, and it might even be the very thing that stops you from completing your workout. Sound familiar? Don't worry; you're definitely not alone in this struggle.

"This is certainly one of the more common discomforts in all levels of runners," said Michael Olzinski, MSc, Purplepatch endurance coach and Equinox run coach. "That said, it is most common in beginner or less trained runners."

Someone who isn't a seasoned runner might experience "more imbalances or compensations that would leave them at a higher propensity to cramp up or experience a side stitch," Mike told POPSUGAR. All is not lost, though. The more you sharpen your running skills and learn about your body, the less stitches you'll fight in the long run.

Although Mike said there's "very little definitive data on what is the exact cause" of side cramps, he also said there are two main umbrellas you can break it down to, and from there you can probably dig out the culprit.

Biochemical Issues

"This is an imbalance of fueling, hydration, and electrolytes in the body," Mike explained. "If we are constantly underfueled and don't have sufficient hydration and electrolyte concentration in our blood, our muscles are extremely likely to dysfunction, which can likely result in a side stitch."

On the other side of the coin are your effort and pacing. If you go all out at the very beginning of your workout and you're not properly warmed up, your body will start to talk to you in an unpleasant way.

Biomechanical Issues

These problems arise from your joints or muscles. "Due to some muscular weaknesses or compensations resulting from less than ideal form, some muscles can take a bit more stress, and this can result in some stitching or cramping," Mike told POPSUGAR. "The reason it happens in the side or the torso a lot is generally a result of needing a little more core stability specific to running."

While it might be easy to stabilize your core in bodyweight exercises like planks or squats, Mike says "a dynamic and multidimensional activity like running" requires extra time and work to develop the stability and strength in your core.

How Do You Prevent These Issues From Happening?

This is the million dollar question. We want our workouts to be strong, effective, and pain-free, so Mike has some stellar tips that will minimize side cramps in the long run.

  • "Watch what you eat in the hour or so leading up to a run. If you have a lot of food in your stomach and the body is focused on digesting, then the proper muscles are not going to be working to stabilize the trunk, and you can cramp."
  • "Be hydrated with some good electrolytes . . . and not just before a workout, but all day. Lots of people make the mistake of trying to 'cram' hydration and force down plain water before a workout. I also recommend doing a nice lemon water with a pinch of sea salt."
  • "Warm up and take your time getting into your workout. Let your blood circulate and muscles warm up for a good 10 to 15 minutes before you really ramp up your effort."
  • "Lastly, do some drills to help your balance and stability specific to running. Exercises that put you through all ranges of motion specific to running will help your body keep balanced and synchronized so that you teach the correct muscles to take the appropriate amounts of pressure while you run."

One last important thing is this: if you do cramp up in the middle of a run, just slow down and loosen up your shoulders and arms. "Don't try to stretch it; that will only make the reaction stronger," Mike advised. Oops . . . but noted.

Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Rima Brindamour
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