Muscle cramps can be the bane of your exercising life. So is the sharp, stabbing pain of a stitch in your side. Ever been running on a beautiful afternoon and then – WHAM! – someone has just shoved a knife in your side? Well, it feels like it at least. Muscle cramps and getting a stitch in your side is one of the most painful experiences of any athlete and it happens to almost everyone. Luckily, understanding the cause of these involuntary muscle contractions can help you avoid experiencing this pain that usually stops you in your tracks.
“This is certainly one of the more common discomforts in all levels of runners. That said, it is most common in beginner or less trained runners” – Michael Olzinski, MSc, Purplepatch endurance coach and Equinox run coach.
What Are Muscle Cramps?
Muscle cramping happens when the muscles you are primarily using when you are working out become fatigued and are not firing properly. Beginners are more likely to cramp as their muscles are not used to the level of training and their body is pushed beyond its limit. A muscle cramp can occur when there is a biochemical imbalance in the body. So if you are under-fueled, dehydrated or don’t have enough electrolytes in your body, your muscles are more likely to cramp up.
What is a Stitch?
A stitch in your side happens when your diaphragm or your core stability muscles cramp up. When the pain is coming from between your ribs and under your lungs, and the pain is worse when you breathe – that’s your diaphragm spasming. Your diaphragm is one of the main muscles involved in breathing, so when you are exercising it requires more blood flow to work well. If there is a reduction in blood supply (for example if you’ve just eaten and your stomach is requiring extra blood to digest food), then this can result in experiencing a stitch. When the pain is coming from your side around your waist, that is most likely due to instability from your core muscles.
6 Ways to Reduce Muscle Cramps
- Fuel up well
- Eat well before you need to work out – at least 2 hours before, or have a light snack 30 minutes before warming up. This will give your stomach time to digest the food so that when you exercise, your body can focus on sending blood to your muscles.
- Make sure you eat carbohydrates – the main fuel for your body to burn to get you moving and working hard. There are only so much carbohydrates that can be stored in your muscles, so once those stores are used up you are at greater risk of cramping. And if your workout is more than an hour long, you will need to keep fuelling your body as it takes about 60-90 minutes for those carbohydrate stores to deplete.
- Eat foods that are salty to increase the electrolytes circulating around your body. Electrolytes control the shift of fluid in and out of your cells. The main electrolyte that you lose in exercise is sodium (aka table salt) which is lost in perspiration. If it is a particularly hot day, you need to make sure you are replenishing your body of sodium.
- It is important for many other reasons as well as to prevent cramping to make sure you are well hydrated before, during and after you exercise. Make sure you are sipping water throughout the day so that your body doesn’t begin exercising with a disadvantage, when you are already dehydrated. Fluids in the body are either inside or outs
- ide of the cell, so when we become dehydrated, the fluid outside of the cells decreases. A muscle twitch (which can lead to a full muscle cramp) can occur when the nerve endings squish together and spontaneously discharge because of a reduction in fluids. Keeping well hydrated prevents these dramatic shifts in fluid.
- Warm Up.
- Give your body time to get your blood circulating and your muscles moving. Invest in at least 10-15 minutes of low-impact, gentle warm up, then you can push yourself hard without risking getting a stitch.
- Practise Breathing. Since the diaphragm is the main muscle for breathing, you can reduce getting a stitch by regulating your breathing patterns. Try matching your breathing to your stride (much like swimmers do with their stroke pattern), inhaling for two to four strides and exhaling for the same. This will strengthen your diaphragm and increase the efficiency of oxygen travelling through your body.
- Slow down and Release.
- When you get a stitch, slow down your pace and try to regain control of your breathing. Exhale as the foot on the opposite side of the stitch strikes the ground. If the stitch still won’t go away, stop completely, touch your toes and apply firm pressure (do not stretch) with your hand onto the pain.
- Train Specific.
- Train specifically to increase your balance and stability so that you teach the correct muscles to be used specific to the exercise that you are doing. This will strengthen your body and reduce the risk of your core stability muscles from cramping.
Don’t let muscle cramps and stitches stop you from continuing to exercise. There is nothing wrong with your body! You just need to know how to manage it well and prepare your body for the exercise that you love to do. Gradually increase the intensity of your workouts as you are able and hold back from going too hard too fast. Employing some of the above techniques can help you reduce the risk of cramps and enjoy your exercise freely. Get out there and get moving!
If you’d like a personalised exercise program or need help with motivation, have a chat to one of our friendly personal trainers. Or join one of our many, varied group fitness classes. Whatever you love to do, you can do it at AJ’s. Contact us for your guided tour of our facilities, sign up online to become a member, or give our free, 5-day trial pass a go.
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