What is a stress fracture

Are you a track or cross country runner who is at risk for a stress fracture this season? There is a good chance that the choices you are making in your training program are contributing to the possibility of a stress fracture. To better understand how we can save you from a season ending stress fracture; let’s look at what a stress fracture is and what causes it.

How serious is a stress fracture?

A potential season ending sports related injury known as a stress fracture is a type of fracture that occurs in a bone and in most cases is associated with athletic activities such as running, sprinting, and jumping. These activities are a way of life in the world of track and field and cross country and sometimes the dreaded stress fracture gets the best of the athlete.

Stress fractures can be described as a very small sliver or crack in the bone, and are sometimes also known as a “hairline fracture”. Stress fractures mostly appear in weight-bearing bones, such as the tibia (shin bone), metatarsals (foot bones), and the femur (thigh bone). However, in some rare cases, a stress fracture can appear in a non-weight-bearing bone.

What causes stress fractures?

Stress fractures are commonly caused by an overload of and/or repeated stress on a bone in the human body. In running sports such as track and field or cross country, there is a repeated volume of stress put on the weigh-bearing bones due to the repetitive foot striking involved in a runners training program or perhaps a jumpers (long jump, triple, jump, high jump, and pole vault) training program.

Anytime a distance runner, sprinter, or a jumper participates in a running, sprinting, or jumping activity, they are challenging their muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones with varying amounts of stress (physical activity). There is nothing wrong with this stress (explained later), however, if poor athletic mechanics are used and if used over a long enough period of time, then eventually “something has to give”. The only problem is that “something” usually ends up being a stress fracture.

Why don’t all elite athletes get stress fractures?

When we think of all the elite athletes and the training programs they might be doing, we think of the most intense, high volume, and complex training routines possible. If this were true, why are they not all getting stress fractures? The reason why we don’t see many elite athletes with stress fractures is because most of them are taking action and preventing them from happening. They are successful at doing this through proper nutrition, rest, recovery, and rather than a super intense, high volume, and overly complex training program, they are following a well-planned training program that allows for progressions in their performance.

What really causes a stress fracture?

Muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones are constantly trying to repair (remodel) themselves anytime an athlete is participating in a sport where a lot of stress is applied to them. When we stress (training) the body with a challenging task over and over, the body’s muscles and bones repair and rebuild and actually become stronger and improve performance as long as they have adequate training and are allowed to rest/recover properly.

It is important to note that the muscles and bones serve as major shock absorbers. However, if the muscles (primarily in the lower leg) become fatigued, they lose their ability to absorb shock. When this happens, the bones continue to experience more stress over a long period of time and it exhausts their ability to remodel. Eventually, a stress fracture will appear in the area of the bone where the most stress occurs. A stress fracture will not appear suddenly like a common fracture or break. It occurs from repeated bouts of trauma and is usually accompanied by a lack of recovery and nutrition.

How to reduce your risk of a stress fracture

Rest and recovery: When training at high levels, it is important to listen to your body. The best recipe for optimal performance with the least amount of injuries is to train smart. Following the training principle of “50% hard work + 50% recovery = 100% success” will get you there. Otherwise, a training program that doesn’t include adequate recovery will end up looking like a disaster later in the season when performance counts the most.

Nutrition: When putting nutrients into your body, you want to have a wide variety of food that is healthy for you. When buying food, try to stay away from processed foods that come in a box, or has more ingredients than you can pronounce. Also, it is very important that you keep your calorie intake up when training. With the added pressure to reduce calories and maintain an impossible body (almost all magazine photos have photo-shopped images), the majority of Americans are conditioned to reduce their calories with “low calorie” food (it’s probably not real food) and eat less.

The problem with today’s diet is that it pushes Americans to eat more “low calorie” foods and less calories too. There are two huge problems here. One, if a product is “low calorie” it is most likely engineered with a bunch of processing and has more man-made ingredients in it than natural ingredients. The second problem is that an athlete who is training vigorously needs to allow their body to repair, rebuild, and recover. If there are not enough healthy calories going into the body, then eventually it will break down. Where? Who knows, but research has shown that stress fractures in some female athletes have been linked to poor nutrition habits due to the added pressure of body image.

Improve form (running, jumping, and strength training mechanics): When training over an extended period of time, it is recommend that you perform any skill/activity with the best form you possibly can…always. If an athlete has poor running mechanics and let’s say they run with one of their feet rotated outward (pointing out like a duck foot stance), even just a little bit, they can expect some sort of lower leg/foot problem later in the season. It’s no different than a tire on a vehicle that is out of balance or alignment. Eventually it will wear faster than the other tires and will have to be replaced due to an extreme loss of rubber tread. Not to mention, the possibility of decreased gas mileage. Now imagine this is you. Let’s face it, you don’t want to “use more gas” than you need to, and you also don’t have another tire (leg/foot) to replace.