How to Avoid Stomach Cramps when Running

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How to minimize cramps while running
Coast Guard Petty Officer William B. Adams continues running while cramping at the Army 10-Miler hosted by Camp Buehring, Kuwait, Oct. 2, 2011. (Chief Warrant Officer Daniel McGowan/1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Red Bull Infantry)

A Marine asked about running during the USMC three-mile run.

"Every time I run hard to get a good score on the three-mile PFT, or when I'm training for the test, I get a stomach cramp or side stitch about halfway in the three-mile timed run. My question is - what can I do to prevent it, and what can I do to stop the pain or lessen it?"

Running with stomach cramps is never fun, but there are ways to lessen or work through the pain - or even prevent the cramps altogether.

First, it is still a big mystery to many physiologists and doctors as to what is the real cause of stomach cramps. The experts have theorized that the common side stitch is caused by the exertion that running and bouncing forces inside the abdominal walls. Basically, your stomach and other organs -- like the spleen and liver -- bump into each other as your feet jar the ground, causing connective tissue to stretch on the nerves and cause pain. This connective tissue also is attached to your diaphragm, which helps with breathing. This pain is usually on the right side and just under the ribs. Exercise like horseback riding, running and sit-ups are common causes of the side stitch.

Ways to prevent or lessen the pain of the common side stitch:

1. Don't run on a full stomach

You shouldn't drink large amounts of water or eat 2-4 hours before exercise. Sip small amounts (1-2 swallows) before and during exercise and wait to rehydrate fully until after the workout. Dehydration can cause cramping as well, so do not ignore water/Gatorade during running. Always sip a few swallows at regular intervals if running for more than 30 minutes and in hot temperatures.

2. Decrease pace and breathe deeply

Decrease your fast pace for a few minutes and continue deep breathing techniques during running. A common running sequence is a three-step inhale and two-step exhale pattern. Slowing down your pace will allow you to keep up with that pattern. As you increase to near maximum speed, your breathing will become more labored. However, you can push through the pain and keep your pace if you concentrate on breathing deep by pushing your stomach out when you inhale and relaxing it as you exhale. 

3. Pre-stretch with side torso twists

Pre-stretch before running by doing side torso twists. One of the best ways to pre-stretch the area is to lift your arms over your head and lean to the left and right at the waist.

4. Perform lower back and abdominal exercises

Do more lower-back and abdominal exercises; see "Achieve Washboard Abs" for more ideas. Having a strong core will help you prevent the side stitch.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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