I’ll start by noting that this is a very common issue and it can be a real downer. Side aches almost always occur on the right side, just below the point where your rib-cage meets the side of your body, but they can in fact happen on the left side at times as well.
There’s a lot of debate over the cause of side-aches, but the best guess is that the ache comes from the up and down motion of running putting stress on the diaphragm. What we see with runners is that there may be some combination of things that makes side-aches worse for them as individuals, such as eating or drinking before running – or not eating or drinking before running. The problem can be highly dependent on the person.
Side-aches are caused by the up and down motion of running putting stress on your internal organs, most especially when you’re breathing out. When breathing out, there is an increase in the tension on the ligaments holding your organs in place, in particular the liver (which is a big and heavy organ), as the diaphragm comes upward. If you also happen to be hitting the ground with your foot at the same time, this banging can cause your side to ache.
Here are a couple of things that you can do to help:
First, become a belly breather – concentrate on taking deep breaths and expanding your belly when you breathe. You can practice this by laying on the couch with a book or magazine on your stomach and lifting it up and down as you breathe. If you breathe shallowly with just your lungs, you won’t see your belly moving in and out as much. Belly breathing not only helps with side-aches, but also puts more air in your lungs, giving you more oxygen with each breath.
Second, change your breathing ratio – Your breathing ratio is the ration of breaths you take in to the number that you breathe out. Since it takes longer to pull air into your lungs than to expel it, you’ll notice that you have a ratio of a certain number of steps breathing in to a certain number of steps going out. Usually this will look something like 2:1 (two steps while breathing in to 1 step while breathing out). If the pattern always results in you breathing with the same foot hitting the ground, this can cause side-aches. You can read a great article on side-aches with an explanation of this by clicking here. Try to change the pattern so that the other foot hits the ground.
Third, try slowing down – if you slow down your pace, and breathe from your belly, you should be able to increase your breathing/step ratio to 3:2 (three steps in to 2 steps out). This more relaxed breathing ratio my alleviate the side-aches.
Fourth, experiment with what you eat and drink and when – try eating or drinking something before running – or change up the types of food (for example from solids to liquids) before your run. Sometimes a combination of different weights of foods or liquids in the stomach can contribute to your side-aches.
Finally, know that as you become a stronger runner, side-aches tend to be less of a problem. This is most likely due to increased strength in your core muscles. This tends to lessen the incidence of side-aches as well.
So, give a try to two things: breathing from the belly and changing up your stride pattern. These may help cut down on the side-aches. That’s probably a better solution than my high school track coach told me: “just run through it.”
Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
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