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Cyclist grimacing as he pedals onward

Bike Shorts: How To Stop Side Cramps When Cycling

If you’re committed to staying fit, then you’ve undoubtedly worked out through pain a time or two. For endurance athletes like runners, swimmers and cyclists, there’s one kind of pain that’s a well-known nuisance: the side cramp.

Side cramps show up uninvited and unexpected, and they can cause quite a bit of pain and discomfort. They can appear anywhere on either side of your abdomen, from right below your rib cage down to your hip. Sometimes, they can even make it difficult to breathe. The nickname many use — “side stitch” — is appropriate because it often feels like someone stitched a seam right across your abdomen.

Although these are most common for runners, cyclists (especially mountain bikers) do experience side stitches, and they’re not often sure how to get rid of them when they happen. Lucky for you, longtime cycling coach Darryl Mackenzie always has another trick up his sleeve. 

Let’s look at what causes side cramps when cycling and how to stop side cramps while cycling quickly.

What Causes Side Stitches When You Exercise?

There are quite a few theories as to what causes side stitches when you work out, but none of them is decisive. In his years cycling, Darryl has most often seen them correlate with higher-intensity workouts, particularly if they come too soon after eating. In fact, he first noticed this connection as a child, when running to school after breakfast or lunch during frigid Canadian winters.

It continued into his cycling years later in life. “I used to get these a lot more when I was a newer rider and in worse physical condition,” he says. 

In Darryl’s view, this has to do with the increased heart rate and more rapid breathing that happens during a high-intensity workout or for a less well-conditioned athlete. It also helps to explain why side cramps can be more common after you haven’t worked out in a while, since your heart rate tends to run high after a few weeks off the bike.

Research in sports medicine has also shown that side stitches tend to be more common in younger people and with less conditioned athletes. They’re also more frequent not only after meals but even when your stomach is full of fluids. Theories about causes range from spasms of the diaphragm and inflamed ligaments to improper breathing.

How to Stop the Side Stitch and Keep Cycling

Regardless of how side stitches happen, though, you want to know how to get rid of them. For most cyclists, the only solution they know regarding how to stop side cramps while cycling is to slow down or take a break until it passes. But this isn’t a great option when you’re trying to stay with a group of riders.

Well, we have good news. This is another one of those “magic pills” Coach Darryl came across years ago. When he first discovered this trick for stopping a side cramp, he learned it this way: Pick up a small, egg-size stone — one that fits well in your palm — place it in the hand on the same side that hurts, and squeeze hard and continuously for a while.

Of course, as a cyclist, you don’t need to take the extra step of finding a stone. You already have something perfect in the palm of your hand: your handlebars. Next time you get a side stitch while cycling, squeeze the part of the handlebar that best fits your hand — on the same side where you’re feeling the cramp — and don’t let up. 

After a minute or two of this, the pain should subside. You shouldn’t have to slow down or ease up on your cycling workout, just focus and squeeze for a few minutes until the pain eases.

Of course, you can always do your best to prevent side stitches by staying fit and avoiding a full stomach right before a ride. But, for those moments when you can’t avoid a cramp, a strong grip should do the trick.


Stay informed with more articles by Selle Anatomica and ensure you’re well equipped for your next ride with an ergonomic bike seat.


Look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.

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