How to Mentally Cope with a Stress Fracture

How to Mentally Cope with a Stress Fracture

A stress fracture is a challenging injury. You cannot run and simply daily activities become immensely more difficult. Stress fractures often require six to eight weeks of limited activity to heal. You may end up in a boot or on crutches. Needless to say, a stress fracture can be as mentally difficult for a runner as it is physically. 

Learning to mentally cope with a stress fracture will make a difference in your recovery. That’s not to say that injury recovery will go by quickly or that you won’t miss running. But learning how to handle the mental aspects of injury will make the process more bearable. You do not want to rush back into running too soon, as that could prolong your recovery or cause another injury. By equipping yourself with the tools to handle a break from running, you will improve your recovery, reduce the injury blues, and ultimately get back to training sooner. 

How to Mentally Cope with a Stress Fracture

Practice Daily Gratitude

Dwelling on the negative of injury is all too easy. Stress fractures hurt and hinder not just running, but daily life. They suck – there’s no sugar-coating that truth.

However, a negative mindset helps neither you nor those around you. The six to eight weeks off will only feel longer if you dwell on the negative. In order to mentally cope with a stress fracture, you need to reframe your mindset.

Daily gratitude can help you avoid a negative mindset during injury. Name at least one thing you are grateful for each day, even if it’s something as simple as a roof over your head. Really want to challenge yourself? Name five. 

Give Back to the Running Community

Did you have to DNS a race? Consider volunteering at the race instead. Engaging with the running community will provide perspective and lift your mood. Volunteering at a race will keep you involved with the event instead of sitting at home, dwelling on your injury. 

Support your friends who are training and racing. Yes, that is easier said than done when dealing with an injury. From experience, I found that coaching runners made my metatarsal fracture more tolerable. I could not run, but I could uplift others and celebrate their accomplishments in running. Ultimately, it was better than withdrawing from the running community completely.

Do What You Can

Even if you can’t run, exercise will help you mentally cope with a stress fracture. Depending upon the severity and location of your stress fracture, cross-training is an option. Your doctor or physical therapist will be able to prescribe exactly what you can and cannot do. In most cases, non-weight-bearing activities such as pool running and swimming are permitted. For some types of stress fractures, you may also be able to do upper body strength training and modified Pilates. 

How to Mentally Cope with a Stress Fracture

If you are cleared to do so, try some of these non-impact workouts:
Swimming Workouts for Injured Runners 
The Injured Runner’s Guide to Pool Running
Modified Strength Workout for Injured Runners

But Don’t Overdo It

The temptation is to do more in your cross-training sessions, in order to maintain fitness. However, your body needs the energy to heal the fracture, and recovering from a 2-hour pool run or double workouts demands energy as well. 

Allow yourself to have rest days. Cross-train, but in moderation.  A 30-60 minute cross-training workout most days is enough to maintain fitness. 

It’s OK to Lose Fitness

Let’s look at exactly how much fitness you will lose during a stress fracture. Most research focuses on VO2max and lactate threshold, which are two common indicators of running performance. 

Research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that VO2max declines by 7% within 21 days (3 weeks) of detraining and 16% by 56 days (8 weeks). The same researchers found that blood lactate concentration, heart rate, and the ventilatory rate decreased progressively up until 8 weeks of detraining, and then stabilized.  

Even after 84 days (12 weeks) of inactivity, the detrained athletes still had a higher VO2max and higher blood lactate threshold than if they had never trained at all.  

If you were to completely rest during your stress fracture, yes, you would lose fitness – but you would not lose all of your fitness. Even elite runners have taken breaks due to injury – most notably, Shalane Flanagan before her breakthrough victory at the 2017 New York City Marathon.

If you are able to cross-train, you will be able to maintain your fitness over the course of six weeks. Some of your neuromuscular fitness will deteriorate, meaning that the first few runs back may feel sluggish or awkward. However, you will quickly regain that fitness as you begin to run again. 

Repeat after me: it is ok to lose fitness when injured. Life will continue. You won’t stay “slow “or feel unfit forever. Just as your stress fracture is temporary, so will be any loss of fitness. You will be able to rebuild after your stress fracture heals. Chances are, your body needed an extended break from training. You will probably come back refreshed and ready to train again. 

Once you are cleared to run, build back carefully. It’s tempting to train hard to quickly rebuild fitness, but you will improve the most with gradual reloading. Follow these tips for returning to running after an injury and follow the guidance of your orthopedist or physical therapist.

Don’t Restrict Your Food

Weight gain is understandably a concern when injured. For some runners, the response to an injury is to significantly reduce caloric intake – but this approach can backfire. 

Injuries require nutrients and calories to heal. Some injuries, such as stress fractures, can be caused by nutritional deficiencies. Restricting during injury could only prolong recovery. Your body is attempting to rebuild a break in a bone – give it the resources it needs to do so.

 Restricting will only make you resent your injury more. Yes, you should eat nutritious foods to aid in recovery, especially healthy fats, protein, and calcium-rich foods. You might want to be cautious about excessive emotional eating. But let yourself enjoy life also. Good food and drink are not reserved as rewards for exercise. 

Chances are, your appetite will stabilize during a long layoff. You will likely eat naturally less than you would during a high training load. Use your appetite to dictate how much you eat. If you do gain weight, that’s okay also. Weight fluctuates with different seasons of running. Chances are, that weight gain will be minimal and you will return to your normal weight as you return to training. 

A stress fracture is mentally trying, but it is not permanent. By learning how to mentally cope with a stress fracture, your recovery will be easier. 

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Have you ever dealt with a stress fracture?
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3 Responses

  1. I’ve had stress fractures in my feet, twice. Mentally, it was tough to not be running! Ultimately, what the experiences taught me was to change the way I train. I also found new ways to cross-train!

  2. I’ve never had a stress fracture, but I’ve had to take time off due to surgery or other injuries. It’s frustrating but these are great tips for runners who are sidelined for any reason.

  3. Thankfully, I’ve never had a stress fracture, but I did have to sit out for three months while recovering from surgery. What you said about gratitude was spot-on. I was so bummed to miss out on a running-filled summer, but I was able to walk. And, I knew my recovery would be a success if I took things easy…and the rest is history. Now? I don’t take any run for granted, even the bad ones.

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