Shin splints are one of the most common reasons that a running routine gets sidelined before it even has a chance to get off the ground. These shooting pains felt between the knee and the ankle in the outer part of the leg are a result of strain to the muscle tissue that is attached to the tibia, the largest of the bones found in the lower leg.
Shin splints are a common sports injury, and the most common reason for them is strain caused by running. They also represent about 15% of all running-related injuries. They usually begin as a sharp pain during or after exercise, reducing to a dull ache that can last anywhere from a week to a few months.
Generally speaking, the cause of a shin splint is a shock that the tibia’s connective muscle isn’t capable of absorbing. The actual cause of this shock can vary greatly from individual to individual, however. Possible causes include rolling the ankle (pronation), not stretching the muscles properly before working out, or an imbalance of strength in the surrounding muscles.
Some people are surprised to find that shin splints occur when they start running, as they’ve participated in other types of high-impact leg exercises in the past with no similar problems. As we’ll demonstrate in today’s tips, running is a different world where it’s all about technique and proper preparation. While some people are simply uniquely prone to getting shin splints when they run, employing these five techniques will greatly reduce the chances of them happening.
1) SLOW DOWN AND WATCH HOW YOU LAND
First of all, running is not supposed to be painful. The presence of leg pain doesn’t mean that the workout is “working.” If you’re starting to feel pain or strain, especially in the early going of your run, the most likely culprit is that you’re pushing yourself too hard right out of the gate.
Start by establishing your personal pace. How do you do that? Monitor your heart rate and keep it at its target level at all times, even if that means slowing down to a snail’s pace jog or even a brisk walk.
Also, pay attention to how your foot lands with each step. Ideally, the foot should be landing roughly evenly and beneath your body, possibly tilting more toward landing on the ball of the foot. If the foot is landing too far ahead of the body or too far back on the heel, it will put extra strain on the tibia muscles.
2) STRETCH PROPERLY BEFOREHAND, AND BOLSTER RELATED MUSCLES
Proper stretching is perhaps never more important before any other exercise than before running. It’s very important to stretch your calves thoroughly, preferably by sitting down and either touching your toes or using a towel or resistance band wrapped around the foot.
Shin splints are very commonly attributable to weak dorsiflexors, the muscles that stabilize the ankle and control toe movement. A sure sign of weak dorsiflexors is that your feet tend to slap loudly on the ground when running, to a much more noticeable degree than the noise made by longtime runners.
Fortunately, there are a few exercises you can do at home that specifically target the dorsiflexors and don’t require any extra equipment.
Try doing some toe curls, heel step-downs and wall shin-raises to help strengthen the dorsiflexors. To start out, it’s best to pick one type of exercise and do it three times per week.
3) WATCH HOW AND WHERE YOU RUN
Concrete is the worst surface for runners, because it has no give under the foot whatsoever. Technically, asphalt has more give, but it’s not much of a meaningful difference for the force being generated by a runner taking a step.
A good general rule of thumb is that if you have to run on a hard surface, then you need to invest in proper footwear that absorbs some of that shock.
Runner’s World recommends grass, woodland trails with peat or wood chips, dirt, clay and synthetic track as the best and most forgiving sources under a runner’s foot. You want the surface to be as stable as possible, but still have enough give that your muscles aren’t bearing the full brunt of your downward force.
Another thing to carefully keep an eye on is elevation. Are you running in an area that has you going downhill for an extended period of time, or on a side-sloping street? If so, the positioning of your foot during these segments is putting more stress on the dorsiflexor and the tibula muscle tissue.
4) CHECK YOUR FORM AND STRIDE
Proper running form is tricky and counterintuitive for some. When you’re running, you want the feet landing beneath the body and the force being generated by forward pushes. Too often, novice runners rely on overly long strides and trying to pull themselves forward with their legs, and this improper technique is a recipe for shin splints.
Also be sure to relax your upper body as much as possible and carry your elbows at a 90-degree angle. Proper full-body running form has the benefit of conserving energy and keeping your heart rate under control, as well as preventing shin splints from forming.
5) IF ALL ELSE FAILS, GET MEDICAL ASSISTANCE
If you’ve done everything you can think of and still seem to be experiencing unusual shin strain, it could be very helpful to see a foot doctor. See your regular family practice doctor first, and explain the situation to get a referral to a foot specialist. The specialist can then examine you for conditions like pronation, which not only contributes directly to shin splints but can also cause various other pains and strains throughout the lower body.
What’s the solution to these conditions? Most likely, a prescription for orthotics. This could take any form from a specially-designed running shoe to a special sole insert or an ankle brace.
Another option, of course, is a medical chiropractor. Chiropractic treatment can provide pain relief and an improved range of motion in the case of serious injuries and does not involve the use of heavy pain medications.