Does the old warning hold true? If we jump into a pool right after we scarf down a burger, will we drown? If so, what happens in those magical 30 minutes that allows us to resume normal activity and saves us from certain death?
The belief is that if you swim on a full stomach, you will experience severe muscle cramping, which may cause you to drown. It’s no wonder so many people take this advice to heart — no one wants a day of fun to turn into tragedy.
There is no medical evidence to back this claim. Furthermore, there have been no specific swimming guidelines from such trustworthy health organizations as the Red Cross warning people of the “dangers” of swimming on a full stomach.
So where did this idea come from?
Most likely it’s the dreaded cramps, or “side stitches” we feel in our lower rib cage, and sometimes in the shoulder joint, when engaging in physical activity — usually right after eating. It’s most prevalent in runners, but any sort of exercise performed on a full stomach will cause you to get side stitches, or at the very least make you feel uncomfortable. Rest assured, though, you will not die.
There are a few theories about what causes side stitches (known in the medical world as exercise-related transient abdominal pain), including: stretching of the ligaments that extend from the diaphragm to the liver; eating a large amount of food, especially fatty foods, before physical activity, which may cause stress on the diaphragm; and even shallow breathing.
Alcohol, on the otherhand, has been shown to be a large contributing factor in drowning deaths. So if you have a liquid lunch, stay out of the water.
While you can’t “cure” them, you can try avoiding side stitches altogether if you stop what you’re doing when you feel pain.
Columbia Health suggests the following to keep side stitches to a minimum:
• Delay exercise or activity for a longer period of time after eating if your side stitches occur when you exercise after eating.
• Stick to long, low-intensity workouts, instead of quick, high-intensity ones.
• Warm up and gradually pick up your workout pace. This may help prevent side stitches, regardless of exercise intensity.
• Build stretches of speed intervals into your workout in order to strengthen your abdominal muscles and diaphragm. Some believe weak abs and diaphragms cause side stitches, so making them stronger may help prevent them.
• Continue to work out at an even pace. Some researchers found that people with better aerobic fitness tend to get fewer side stitches. Therefore, the more you build up your endurance and cardiovascular fitness, the less likely you are to wind up with a side stitch.
• Avoid shallow breathing; instead take slow, deep breaths during exercise.
If you’re swimming for exercise, you need to have something in your stomach for energy.
According to sports dietitian Chris Rosenbloom, "Aim to eat a healthy meal three to four hours before exercise, so that there is time for the food to be digested and absorbed.
If you don’t have time to eat before working out in the pool, Rosenbloom suggests eating at least 30 grams of carbohydrate. He says carbs that are easily digested and eaten 15 minutes before exercise can improve your performance when compared with exercising with no carbohydrate.