How I Returned to Running After a Stress Fracture

How it Happened?

At the start of this year, I was setting my sights on competing for a spot on Canada’s 2020 Olympic track and field team. Since I had not yet achieved the time standard of 4:04 (my current personal best is 4:10) I would need a combination of factors to give myself the best chance at qualifying.

First, I needed to focus on obtaining points that would contribute to a higher world ranking. A world ranking within the top 40 (last year I was tied for 44th), along with a high placing at the Canadian National Outdoor Championships would not guarantee a spot on the team, but it would give myself the greatest chance if I had yet to achieve the time standard.

My coaches and I had not planned on focusing much on the indoor season, but there was still going to be a few races that would be important for points. One of those was the BU (Boston University) Valentine Invitational in February. Leading up to this meet, I did a few easier local races while maintaining a high training load. However, a little bad luck seemed to creep in at the wrong timing. I ended up getting a bit of a cold/flu the weekend before Boston. Looking back, this seemed to be a warning sign that I was under stress and needed to back off training a bit. Instead, I treated it like I typically would, taking the rest I needed but being on the edge of my seat for the minute I was feeling better and could start training again.

I ended up resting for just two days and returning to the track by doing a hard workout; pushing myself even harder than normal, as I felt like I had missed a bit of necessary training leading up to the race. After the workout, I felt confident that my training had not been impacted by the sickness and I would be ready for the race in 4 days.

But, as a result of pushing myself this hard just a day after I had been not feeling well, I woke up the next morning with a strange feeling in my heel. I had a long day ahead, consisting of classes, getting a deep tissue massage, and packing before I had to fly to Boston the next day, so I decided to hold off and do my run later hoping that my heel would feel better. Around 4:00 pm, I layered up and headed out for my run on the snow and ice and the pain wasn’t too extreme but something was off. To make things worse and to add to my misfortune, I got tripped by a couple of dogs in the off-leash park and that was when I started to feel like something was wrong with my foot.

I finished my run, bearing the pain like nothing was wrong, and got ready to leave for Boston the next day, not realizing that Boston would be where the trouble would truly begin. Aside from having to slightly limp through the airport, I still managed to do an easy shakeout run along the Charles River the first night I arrived in Boston. But when I tried to do my usual 4 x 200m intervals (around 28-30 pace, just something faster than race pace) the following day, I felt like I couldn’t push off on my one foot. I ended up shutting it down after 2 intervals, returning to the hotel with my confidence slightly deflated. I got an opinion from a medical professional that night and he figured it was just my Achilles that was the problem and that I should be able to make it through the race.

Sometimes it’s important to take in advice from a professional, but in this case, I would have been better off trusting my instincts (which were telling me this was more serious than a normal overuse injury and that I shouldn’t race). Instead, I took the advice and tried to race despite all of the warning signs telling me not to. I ended up dropping out halfway through (my first DNF in 4 years) and not even being able to run a light cool down.

The Key Signs that I Will Listen to Going Forward:

  1. Always trust your instincts when it comes to running through an injury; no one knows how your body feels better than you do.
  2. Sickness is your body’s way of telling you to take a break. That doesn’t meaning jumping off the couch and into a hard workout the minute you feel good (no matter what is in the training/racing plan).

The Rehab Process

For the couple weeks that followed the race in Boston, I continued to cross-train on the bike as the stress fracture had not yet been diagnosed. I waited for the results from the MRI hoping that it wouldn’t be a fracture and that I could still compete at our conference and national indoor championships. Two weeks had passed and my heel felt like it was at about 95% again. My coaches had to hold me back from attempting a workout until we knew the results from the MRI, and as it turns out that was the right call.

Once we found out, I took a week off of training and watched on the sidelines as my teammates competed at Nationals. Even though I missed competing, it was really fun to support the team and I gained a bit of perspective thinking about how lucky we are when things do go to plan and getting to compete at these awesome meets.

After the week was over, I returned to cross-training through pool running, biking, and bodyweight exercises. I didn’t allow myself to get too disappointed because I still had a goal in mind of qualifying for the Olympic Games. But not long after, Canada announced that they were pulling the team, and soon to follow the Games were postponed to 2021.

Ironically, I remember discussing with my mom last year saying that it’s sort of too bad [with my age and progress in the sport] that the Olympics weren’t just a year later than they were scheduled for. That would give me a bit more time to develop and not rush things. I couldn’t have imagined that this scenario would come to fruition and on top of that, at a time when I would need it most. I had sympathy for other athletes that are in the prime of their career and had momentum going into 2020. But I couldn’t help but look at from a positive perspective, and besides that, it would not have been smart with the pandemic to go forward with the Games.

So instead of being in a rush to get back to training, we slowed things down a bit with slightly less intensity than we would have otherwise to allow my body to heal properly. I spent about 8 weeks cross-training and then continued to cross-train while starting a return to running program, where I progressed from alternating 30sec jogging followed by 4.5min walking for 30min, adding 30sec to the jog every 4 days until I reached a 30min complete jog. At that point, we took another week off before starting to build my training volume back up.

Return to Running

I’ll be honest, although it felt extremely good to be running again, the 30min runs felt harder and longer than what my body was used to. On top of that, I didn’t feel like I could enjoy it as much because I was constantly checking in with my body and making sure that my foot felt fine. I wasn’t running free, I was running afraid. Having the support of my doctor and physiotherapist during this time helped. They reassured me that I had taken the necessary time to recover, that 95% of what I thought might be indicating that the injury was still there was just in my head, and that it’s normal to have a bit of worry for some time after an injury.

What I Reminded Myself During this Time:

  1. My body was stronger than it had been in a long time after finally giving it some much needed recovery.
  2. To not get too far ahead of myself, just take it day by day and stop being in a rush for immediate progress.
  3. The most growth occurs in the “green zone” (excerpt from the book Mindset by Carol Dweck, see link below). Time was on my side and I could take advantage of building consistent training, without rushing back to pushing my body to it’s limit on a daily basis.

I also have to give credit to my coach. He was (and still is) very patient with bringing me back to the kind of training that I have done previously. Keeping in mind that this year is no longer results-oriented, but instead recovery-oriented. We stuck to recovery days being 30min while we increased the mileage of interval days. Gradually, as my body felt better during the workout days we increased the recovery days to 45min with the longest that I reached this block being 60min (my longest run of the week is normally 90min, but that isn’t necessary right now).

There were a few bumps in the process of getting back, but overall it went as well as I could have asked. I experienced a minor case of shin splints in the beginning when I started to run more, but that turned into a positive. It forced me to seek out trails in the city that I’ve never known existed and slow down the pace of the recovery days so that I was going by feel instead of by pace. I no longer carry a GPS watch with me on easy days and I don’t plan on going back. During this training cycle, we also didn’t track the distance of intervals. Everything was by time and that was exactly what I needed, so that I wasn’t concerned with how slow I might have been running in the beginning of the comeback.

Another important aspect of my return to running was gaining a better understanding of activation and recovery techniques. My physiotherapist always challenges me to understand the exercises that I’m doing, because if things do go wrong I have the potential to correct something before it becomes an issue that needs treatment. Like I said before, no one knows your body better than yourself. I read Running Rewired and The Science of Running and both books have good sections that I think can be beneficial to runners of any calibre.

What I Learned from the Injury?

  1. Letting go of immediate progress doesn’t mean letting go of growth. During my rehab and return to running, I grew in ways that will take me much farther in life and in running, than the grueling workouts and regimented routine that I was so familiar with before.
  2. During this time, I watched a lot of interviews from athletes that achieved great things in sport. Many times, the greatest moments came after just as great of a setback. It’s just like the classic saying goes, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” – Confucius
  3. I could probably make a list much longer than 3 points with all of the things that I learned. But I’ll keep this short and end off with this: the best way to learn is through experience. Two characteristics that you could use to describe myself would be stubborn and a good listener. They might seem like opposites, but I view them as complimentary. I listen and learn when the time calls for it [like having a more serious injury] but I’m also stubborn in my ways and need to experience something first-hand before taking action. The key is to balance the stubbornness with being open to change, and this injury has instilled that change isn’t always a bad thing.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have had struggles with injury! Happy to listen and hear your story. 🙂

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BODY TRANSFORMATION ⠀ Swipe through to see me transform from a scrawny runner to strong runner over the past couple of years (left is before, right is current, swipe from most recent to previous). _ _ _ ⠀ For someone that doesn’t put on weight very easily/quickly this has been a long time coming. In 2018 I was running (pun not intended) into a lot of unnecessary overuse injuries and we had to do something about it. ⠀ I think a large part of it was just lack of recovery on days I should have been running easier. Looking back at my training log, I regularly ran my “easy days” which are 60-90min of running at 3:50-4min/km pace and may have thrown in a couple 3:30s here and there (😬). It was just lack of experience. I thought, if I could run that fast why wouldn’t I. I realize now, that meant that I wasn’t properly recovering and no matter how much I ate.. nothing was sticking to my body (as you can clearly see). ⠀ Having a more serious injury come up earlier this year actually really helped me in this regard, because my body was forced to properly recover. I also have a new perspective and understanding of training and that it should not be going full force everyday. I haven’t been using my GPS watch to track pace on easy runs anymore, which helps me to run by feel on days that need to be easy. Maybe I still throw in a couple fast kms/miles here and there when I’m feeling good, but the more important part is listening to my body when I need to. ⠀ Lastly (sorry for the long post), I still do have that “6-pack” and those clearly defined muscles that you see in the first picture. They’re actually stronger now, but just slightly more covered by a “healthy layer of protection” 😆. There are times that I’ll be leaner and other times where I won’t be quite so lean and that just comes with the type of training that I do at certain parts of the season. ⠀ It may still be awhile, but I’m excited to race again and find out what all of this progress has accumulated to on paper. Hint: I’m feeling faster, stronger, and more mentally prepared than I’ve ever been 🏃🏼‍♀️ ⠀ #bodytransformation #transformationtuesday #fasterstrongerbetter

A post shared by Courtney Hufsmith (@courtneyhufsmith) on

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