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What Women Runners Need to Know About Bone Health

Here's how to be proactive about your bone health before a break sidelines you.

Photo: Getty Images

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As kids, we are told to have a glass of milk with dinner to grow strong bones. Seemed simple enough at the time, but that advice doesn’t seem to reflect a traditional supper-time routine for adults.

In fact, ten million people in the United States suffer from osteoporosis, a disease that weakens the bones, runners included. Because while running is a weight bearing sport that helps strengthen the bones, it is also a sport with a high incidence of stress fractures. All runners, especially women, should know how to protect their bones and ensure good bone health throughout their lifetime.

Here’s what all women runners should know about how to keep their bones strong and healthy.

The Basics of Bone Health

First off, how does the calcium in milk (and other calcium-rich food and beverage) work to strengthen our bones?

Bones are composed of proteins and minerals, most notably calcium. Calcium is also present in the blood. If the blood calcium drops below a certain amount, it draws calcium out from the bones, making them weaker. Without ample dietary calcium, this process happens repeatedly and the bones become weaker and weaker. The loss of too much bone can result in osteoporosis.

People with osteoporosis cannot feel their bones getting weaker and may not even be aware of their disease. The most common side effect of osteoporosis is a bone break, usually in the hip, spine, or wrist, and these bone breaks can occur from something as small as a sneeze. It’s important for women over the age of 50 to get a bone mineral density test to determine the density of their bones.

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Bone density and strength is especially important for runners because stress fractures comprise between 0.7 and 15.6 percent of all athletic injuries, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Stress fractures occur for a variety of reasons, such as having a history of injury or low bone muscle density, training too intensely for your activity level, running and jumping activities, wearing inappropriate sneakers, having inflexible or weak muscles, or running with poor alignment or poor technique.

Preventing Osteoporosis

Although the risk factors sound scary, osteoporosis and stress fractures can be easily prevented with the proper diet. Bones grow until females reach ages 16-18, and peak bone mass is reached by age 30. After peak bone mass is reached, the bones are measured according to bone mineral density. Bone mineral density diminishes slowly after age 40, but bone losses increase greatly in women after age 50 (usually 1-2 percent per year). Peak bone mass and bone mineral density are related to appropriate intake of calories, protein, calcium phosphorous, vitamin D, and vitamin K. Eating at least 1,000 mg of calcium and 600 IU of vitamin D per day can prevent the loss of calcium from the bones and help maintain bone mineral density.

While most people know that dairy foods are the best source of calcium, there are many other non-dairy calcium filled foods. Green vegetables, such as kale, broccoli, bok choy, turnip greens, and spinach, are packed with calcium. Soy products, such as tofu or soy milk, are also rich in calcium. Some traditionally non-calcium containing products, such as orange juice and cereals, are even fortified with calcium.

While calcium is important to maintaining strong healthy bones, vitamin D is the other piece in the bone health puzzle. The most common source of vitamin D is sunlight, but the body’s ability to turn sunlight into vitamin D varies based on skin tone, sunscreen use, and age. Older individuals and those that live in northern places have a greater risk of vitamin D deficiency. Foods, such as egg yolks, fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, catfish, tuna, and sardines, cod liver oil, and mushrooms are rich in vitamin D. If these foods are not prevalent in your diet, taking a vitamin D supplement may help prevent deficiency.

RELATED: Getting Enough Vitamin D is Important for Runners in More Ways Than One

There are a few other preventative measures to ensure strong bones, such as adding strength training exercises to your workout routine, not smoking, and watching your alcohol intake.

Don’t let your bone health interfere with your running. Be aware of your bone health, especially as you age. Help spread the awareness of osteoporosis by discussing your bone health with your running buddy or bringing them a calcium filled post-run snack.

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