So you’re fractured – body and brain. You want to scream at the world and pull your hair out and cry, simultaneously. I get it.
In the previous post I introduced the concept that perhaps it is essentially the mind that causes stress fractures in the large majority of athletes, moreso than just the body failing, as modern medicine would have us believe. Specifically, the sheer force of power that is that voice in your head that will not allow the body to stop, even when presented with increasing physical pain. We are a smart bunch; it’s not like we don’t know that something’s wrong and it’s getting worse. It’s just that stopping is infinitely harder than pushing through a little physical pain. Hell, sometimes the physical pain feels good – euphoric even – like you are fighting the beast in a different way. And yes, the pain of a stress fracture is “little” in comparison to running 35km after not eating much for a few days….there’s levels of relativity and most of you here have an abnormal sense of ‘perspective’ when it comes to matters of human suffering. I wish it wasn’t so, I really do.
Sometimes the beast wins, and you find yourself in the doctor’s or physio’s office with a full-blown stress fracture or major overuse injury, which essentially you did to yourself. Yet another kick in the guts. Facing down the barrel of 6-12 weeks off your beloved sport, you feel the red rush of hot panic bubbling up from the fracture site and seeping into your heart. Staring at the image of a clear break on a clear scan, suddenly the pain feels so much worse.
There are hundreds of well researched and accessible texts on gold standard treatment protocols for stress fractures, ranging from stopping running right through to the extreme of surgery, depending on the site and severity of your injury. But there are very few resources written on coping with the emotional and psychological backlash of injuries, much less if you also have an eating disorder or disordered eating and you are now faced with the removal of one crutch – running (emotional) and the replacement by another crutch (literal).
1) Take time to digest the news and go through the stages of grieving, so that you can recognise what you are dealing with. If possible, have a close friend or loved one with you to help with the support and to remember information. The average patient only retains 30% of what is said to them during a medical consultation. Even better – write it down. The doc won’t mind.
2) Embrace the “Athlete Mindset”. The fact that you are in this situation means that you are dedicated enough to your pursuit of excellence that you are already in the top minority of athletes. BUT….you need to learn when that line is approaching and how to not cross it in the future. Allow yourself to recognise your best traits (discipline, commitment, passion), but also to define what you would like to work on in the future (the strategies in part I – prevention; listening to your body; allowing yourself to rest and letting go of some of that perfectionism….). Your “training” now is recovery. That is no.1.
3) Get some Sun. It’ll help with the bone healing thanks to its Vitamin-D inducing properties. It will also assist with depression, appetite and most importantly it will get you outside into the fresh air.
4) Ensure Social Contacts. It’s more important now than ever to make sure that you stay involved somehow – whether that be with group catch-ups after training, going to training or dance class and assisting the coach or teacher, keeping up with dance or running magazines. While it seems counterintuitive, this can actually help you to keep the “athlete mindset” and to help with staying on track in order to achieve bigger goals in the future.
5) Create a different outlet. Use your emotions as a guide. Do what makes you feel good; steer away from things or people that make you feel more down or frustrated. Be aware of being pulled towards bad habits – they can be strong and start sneakily. Tune into your emotional radar early when it’s slightly easier to resist.
6) Develop a nutrition plan. And stick to it. Most notably:
a. Avoid regular and diet sodas due to the bone-leeching phosphoric acid contained in these liquids.
b. Reduce caffeine intake, ideally to less than 2 cups a day. Caffeine also leeches the skeleton of calcium, critical when the bones are in healing mode.
c. Avoid alcohol, which can induce a pro-inflammatory environment and affect absorption of important nutrients in your food. Aside from this, it is a depressant so probably not helpful on the brain given the current situation.
d. Maximise sleep, as this is where your largest surge of growth hormone occurs – crucial for healing and mental health as well. Talk to your doctor about this if you are struggling, which is common when you are used to expending so much energy on a daily basis.
e. Most challenging of all….keep the focus on nourishing the body with high quality foods, now is not the time to diet or restrict food groups. Keep in mind that healing takes up a huge amount of energy. Accredited Sports Dieticians are very experienced in this field thanks to the high injury rate in elite athletes – and yes, you can totally book an appointment and request a meal plan to maintain your current weight while injured, whatever that weight may be. Even if they suspect you have a phobia of certain foods or a controlling personality, they will respect that and all information shared is legally confidential.
7) Most importantly, give yourself permission to rest and heal. If you cannot give it to yourself, ask your health professional – whether it be your dietician, psychologist, physio, doctor or even a friend or loved one. The most weighted words you can hear are “you are not allowed to exercise with this”. You have permission, to just heal. That is your number 1 job. There will be plenty of time once you’re back on your feet to concentrate on training; for now, the more you rest, the faster you will heal.
Of course, it all sounds so practical and easy when it’s neatly typed out on a page. It won’t be – it’s going to be hard, much harder than the physical pain of the initial injury or the discipline of full training. But if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that with no plan at all, things will likely slip downhill fast on the sliperyslope to ED-land. You will have a much harder fight on your hands in the mental department during your down time, but it is worth fighting for and you will come through the other side a stronger, better, more passionate athlete. In my younger (Ana) darker days I had a tibia stress fracture which I couldn’t (mentally) stop running on, eventually I ended up in a cast. When the repeat XRays were done at 8 weeks there was zero evidence of healing, mainly because I had been stressing and severely restricting food during that time and had consequently lost a significant amount of weight. Yes, that can happen. Don’t muck around with it – the psychological setback is so much worse the longer it goes on.
Stay strong, fight the good fight, and learn from your experience so that you can come out fighting.