Stress Fracture from Running
Some runners, the determined bunch that they are, so thoroughly dread being diagnosed with a stress fracture that they might avoid the doctor just to avoid the bad news. With varying levels of severity, location and recovery time, stress fractures pretty much always require some time off from training. A stress fracture from running usually needs at least six weeks to heal and sometimes requires an aid like crutches. But, if you don’t take the time to let the stress fracture heal, it could turn into a full-on break in the bone. Unless you’re ready to deal with recovering from that, follow this guide to learn how to prevent, spot and treat a stress fracture from running.
A stress fracture is a crack in a bone that is, in short, caused by constant, repetitive stress to that bone. It can occur on any weight-bearing bone in the body, such as the metatarsal, the femur or even the pelvis. The most common stress fracture from running specifically occurs in the tibia, or the shin bone. Even the most experienced runner can suffer from a stress fracture in the tibia. However, newer, less educated runners are more likely to make the mistakes that might lead to a stress fracture. But we’ll get to that in a moment!
As most people know, when you first begin training for anything athletic, your body needs time to adapt. Your muscles grow and strengthen with each workout. Your lungs build endurance. And, your bones need to grow and adapt too. However, where muscles develop over a short period of time, bones may need a month to strengthen. Not only that, but in order for bones to strengthen, they must first weaken!
With that in mind, the greatest cause of a stress fracture from running is a sudden increase in mileage, speed or pace. When we run, our bodies (and our shins, in particular) experience a strong impact with every step we take. This can put our bones in shock—or stress, if you will. If they’re not ready for the challenge but we push them anyway, we may develop a stress reaction. This is the earliest form of a stress fracture, which requires less healing time. If we don’t catch that, it becomes a stress fracture. If we don’t catch that, we can experience a full on bone fracture.
Symptoms of a Stress Fracture
How are you to know whether what you’re experiencing is, indeed, a stress fracture? Well, there are several indicators. Some experienced runners have described it as a deep pain. Where a muscular injury may feel closer to the surface, a stress fracture feels deep within our bones. (Think of how being “chilled to the bone” means to be cold all the way through.) Stress fractures feel like an aching or burning pain at a specific, isolated location on a bone. If you can find the exact spot of pain, and if pushing on this spot hurts badly, you probably have a stress fracture. The pain from stress fractures usually seems to appear out of nowhere or with no warning. Unlike some other common running injuries, the pain from stress fractures only worsens with use.
As mentioned before, a stress fracture from running is often the result of too much too soon. Therefore, the best way to prevent them is by taking a look at your training plan. Runners need to increase their mileage gradually. Many professionals will recommend increasing mileage by around 10% each week. However, the very best and most prudent training schedule will include regular down weeks. A down week is essentially a rest week, where you decrease the mileage a little rather than increasing it more. Down weeks allow you—and more importantly, your bones—to rest and recover. For the best results, professionals recommended increasing mileage three weeks in a row, and then taking a down week once a month.
Take the same approach to changing your terrain, as well. If you’d like to add hill running into your training, do so gradually. Also, consider running on a different surface some or all of the time. Many runners have found that running on dirt or grass is much easier on their bones than running on concrete.
Strengthening the muscles around the vulnerable bones is another way to help prevent getting a stress fracture from running. Not only do muscles give us the power to push off with each stride, but they also help protect our bones. Studies have shown that runners with stronger calf muscles, for example, are less likely to develop stress fractures in their tibia.
If you have reason to believe that you have a stress fracture, stop running and see a doctor as soon as you can. The doctor might use something called a bone scan to help determine where, exactly, the fracture may be. The doctor can also help you by judging the severity of the injure, and whether or not it requires crutches. With this information, he or she will be able to write up a working schedule for your training future. He or she will likely recommend that you start with cross training, rather than running, to allow the bone time to properly recover. Cross training might include something like aqua jogging, which will help you stay fit. With the right cross training routine, you can return to running when you’re ready without losing your endurance.
In addition to cross training, take your time away from running to look at your training routine. Search for any of the causes mentioned before, like increasing mileage too quickly or doing too much hill running. Now is also a good time to check out the condition of your shoes. As with all running injuries, the right pair of shoes can sometimes make a world of difference. See a professional at a running shoe store to make sure you’re getting the right support. Eat well, drink plenty of water and consider taking Vitamin D supplements to help protect your from future fractures. With a little patience and some tweaking to your routine, you’ll be past your stress fracture faster than you can say “On your mark, get set, go!”