Injuries/ Nutrition Tips/ Reviews

Fuelling the Runner: My Experience with Preventing Stress Fractures and Osteoporosis with Calcium and Vitamin D Supplements

Confession time:
I haven’t always been a runner. Back in 1998, during my second year of Athletic Therapy, I decided that I wanted to be more active. Dinners of nachos and chicken wings had taken a toll on my weight, and my health – only I didn ‘t realise the effect that my nutrition was having on my health, until I started running to lose the weight. I knew that running was a great high-calorie burning workout. It’s cheap too – all you need is a pair of runners which was a bonus to this cash-strapped University student. So I started running. And running. And running. Then one day my right ankle became swollen and really sore to the touch. In athletic therapy we call that point tenderness (aka extremely painful in one small very local spot). With my knowledge of sports injuries and anatomy, I knew there were no soft tissue structures where I was feeling pain. It could only be one thing: A stress fracture. The mechanism for injury was there: running, and the signs and symptoms matched as well, so I went to see my doctor who agreed with my self-diagnosis and set me up with an appointment a week later at the fracture clinic for an x-ray and a bone scan to confirm our suspicions.

I then spent six weeks in a walking cast:

My Experience with Preventing Stress Fractures and Osteoporosis with Calcium and Vitamin D SupplementsWhen my cast came off I slowly returned to running. That fall, almost six months later, I felt the EXACT SAME pain in my other ankle. A visit to my doctor, another x-ray and a bone scan confirmed it – another stress fracture of my fibula, this time on my left side:

For those keeping score, the fibula is a non-weight bearing bone that runs parallel to your tibia in your lower leg and is not a very likely bone to experience stress fractures in. Because I was young (24) and had gotten not one, but two stress fractures in a year on non-weight bearing bones, my doctor sent me for a bone density test, which indicated that yes, my bone density was low – they call this osteopenia an early indication that I could experience osteoporosis later in life.

Risk factors for low bone density:

  • 65 or older
  • smoking
  • drink three or more alcoholic drinks per day
  • have a condition that requires you to use a glucocorticoid medication such as prednisone
  • take any other medication that can cause osteoporosis such as an aromatase inhibitor for breast cancer or hormonal treatment (androgen deprivation therapy) for prostate cancer
  • have a medical condition that can cause bone loss or fractures? Examples include rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, gastric bypass surgery, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or chronic liver disease.
  • have an early menopause, i.e. before age 45
  • periods that have ever stopped for several months or more (other than for pregnancy or menopause)
  • currently weigh less than 60 kg or 132 lbs
  • lost more than 10% of my body weight since age 25
  • take birth control pills
  • vitamin D deficiency

Osteoporosis can happen even to runners and athletes.
Fractures due to osteoporosis are more common than heart attacks, stroke and breast cancer. The statistics related to hip fractures are particularly disturbing. Did you know that there were approximately 25,000 hip fractures in Canada in 1993? Eighty percent of hip fractures were osteoporosis-related, and hip fractures results in death up to 20 percent of the time! (Source: http://www.osteoporosis.ca) WOW!! Pretty scary, eh?

Now one would expect that the running I was doing, being a weight-bearing activity, would have stimulated my body to INCREASE my bone density, after all isn’t weight bearing activity one of the things a doctor recommends to increase bone strength? Unfortunately in my case, my diet (and I mean this as in the kinds of foods a person habitually eats definition of the term diet), was lacking in calcium and vitamin D. Calcium is needed for our heart, muscles and nerves to function properly and for blood to clot. As well, inadequate calcium significantly contributes to the development of osteoporosis. The Vitamin D that I was lacking is needed for the body to absorb calcium. Without enough vitamin D, we can’t form enough of the hormone calcitriol (known as the “active vitamin D”), causing insufficient calcium absorption from the diet. Because I was vitamin D deficient my body was taking calcium from its stores in my bones, which then was weakening my existing bone and preventing the formation of strong, new bone. Without the mineral calcium my body could not increase my bone strength, and even if I was getting enough calcium from green leafy vegetables, dairy and nuts, I wasn’t absorbing it due to my vitamin D deficiency. This is why my bone density was low, and why running was not stimulating my bones to get stronger.

Enter calcium and vitamin D supplements:
Because of the risk of stress fractures in runners due to either an inadequate consumption or absorption of calcium, a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D is crucial, however if you’re like me, it’s not always possible to get that from your diet alone. This is why I think we should all consider taking calcium and vitamin D supplements.

As I’ve previously written, I ‘m a Swiss Natural Ambassador, so a month ago I was sent their Chocolate Fudge Brownie Calcium Chews to try out. I was really excited when I got them because it meant no more having to swallow bulky pills! I’ve been eating two per day since they sent them to me and I now only have 7 of the original 60 in the bag left:

They taste amazing!!

15 cals!

They’re good for you!

I have to admit I really hated taking my calcium and the separate vitamin D supplements in pill form, but I have been hesitant to try a calcium chew. These chews contain 600 mg of Calcium and 400 IU Vitamin D, which are both critical to women’s health. The fact that these also taste good is a bonus! Hello! Chocolate Brownie flavour!! I now eat my calcium chews every afternoon with my cup of hot water. (Caffeine is also known to decrease your bone density so I drink hot water instead of tea or coffee). An added bonus is that these also curb my afternoon cravings for cookies/cakes/brownies/muffins etc.

I really do think everyone should consider taking a calcium and vitamin D supplement – I’ve been taking them for the past 13 years and I’ve gone on to complete numerous races and ALL of the training associated with those WITHOUT ANOTHER STRESS FRACTURE!!

Question/Sharing: Have you ever experienced a fracture or stress fracture? Do you currently take a calcium and/or vitamin D supplement? What are you doing to ensure good bone health as you age?

Disclosure: I am a Swiss Natural Ambassador and have been compensated for this post. All of my experiences that I have shared with running, stress fractures, bone density and vitamin D deficiency are true.

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  • Carrie
    May 18, 2012 at 9:48 am

    I love those type of chew supplements. Thank you for sharing the list of what increases your risk of suffering a stress fracture, I fit in to a few of those categories.

    • Janice
      May 18, 2012 at 12:24 pm

      I’m glad to help Carrie – I fit into some of those risk factors as well. Have a great weekend!

  • Sam
    May 18, 2012 at 10:41 am

    Wow, I had no idea about half of this. I turned 40 last year and with it came an intolerance to lactose so I should probably look into these chews seeing as my dairy intake is super low now. Thanks for the info! And how the heck do you die from a hip fracture??!!

    • Janice
      May 18, 2012 at 12:22 pm

      There is a very high mortality rate following a hip fracture due to the loss of mobility and the way that losing mobility leads to circulatory diseases, respiratory diseases and digestive diseases. When I learned about that in epidemiology in University it scared the living daylights outta me, hence why I decided to become more active. Some of the injuries and loss of mobility things I treated geriatric patients for that were the direct cause of an inactive lifestyle was also frightening. The saying “move it or lose it” is very very true!

  • Heather
    May 18, 2012 at 11:09 am

    Osteoporosis runs in my family so I’ve always been super aware of it. I don’t take calcium supplements but I probably should– maybe I’ll check these out!

    • Janice
      May 18, 2012 at 12:26 pm

      There are very few supplements that I believe in with the exception of multi-vitamins, probiotics and calcium/vitamin D. These are definitely something to consider looking into the next time you’re at a health food/wellness store. Have a great weekend!

  • AlexandraFunFit
    May 18, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    I haven’t had any issues with fractures (although I do have a reconstructed knee, thanks to soccer), but my doctor has started recommending calcium supplements. I too, hate pills, and tend to choke on them. So I appreciate the recommendation!

  • Weight Loss Trainer
    May 18, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    Great post!
    I dealt with a couple of small stress fractures during my football years, spent a ton of time in off season therapy sessions.

    I just might have to trade out my current calcium supplement and give these a try.

  • Amber K
    May 20, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    I have never had a fracture or a broken bone, but I have had plantar fasciitis. And it was awful. I can’t imagine anything being more painful, but obviously they are out there! I have been supplementing my diet with calcium for a few years and I hope that will at least help. My doctor told me I’m actually at low risk for bone problems, so that’s good!

  • Mary Jenna
    May 23, 2012 at 4:22 am

    Those are really great facts. I will be consuming vitamins and calcium supplements in large to prevent such occurrences during workouts.

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