For many runners, beginning & seasoned alike, shin splints are like the common cold: sometimes they’re mildly inconvenient, while other times they’re severely debilitating. Yet, the reality for many runners is that they’re generally unavoidable over the long-term. But having shin splints is a temporary condition that is entirely manageable. By exercising the following principles and finding which ones work best with your body, you can cure the (runner’s) common cold!
It’s true that some people are more predisposed to the condition than others. It’s all a matter of the tension that is caused by the mixture of someone’s running form & his or her physical makeup. Those who experience this excessive lower leg tightness simply have to spend more time maintaining their strength, flexibility, and most of all, their patience.
1. DO NOT increase your volume or intensity of training when you begin feeling pain in your shin(s). It is much better to lose a couple days or even weeks of training if it means preventing a season-ending stress fracture.
2.DO NOT run on pavement. Running in a soft grassy field (or even a hard-packed dirt trail) is markedly better for your bones and joints and tendons than hard asphalt. Try it next time you are nursing an injury, you’ll notice the difference almost immediately.
3. DO go to a running specialty store and have them examine your gait & the ware patterns on your shoes. Shoes that are worn out, or not correct for your foot strike and pronation habits can quickly exacerbate your biomechanical problems.
4. DO stretch both of the muscles in your calf after every run. Stretch your gastrocnemius muscle
(used for sprinting) by keeping the knee locked as you place the ball of your foot on the edge of a curb or incline and exert downward pressure on your heel. You can stretch your soleus muscle and your achilles tendon (used for long distance running) simultaneously by keeping your knee bent as you exert downward pressure on your heel.
5. DO use a foam roller on your calf before & after every run. You should start with the roller right above your heel bone (the bottom of your achilles tendon) and “roll out,” by putting your weight on the roller, and rolling all the way up to your knee (the top of your gastrocnemius muscle). Remember, the more it hurts to “roll out” your muscles/tendons, the more you need it. If you find a spot that is particularly painful to pass over the roller, then find it and HOLD IT.
6. DO take anti-inflammatory drugs such as Ibuprofen or Aleve to reduce inflammation, which helps them to heal. If you’re not sure how long it’s healthy to take NSAIDs on a regular basis, be sure to ask your trainer or a doctor.
7. DO apply ice to the painful area after every run. Generally, 10-20 minutes on, 40-60 minutes off is a good rule for duration of direct ice application. While it wont solve the issue at its core, icing will surprise you with its effectiveness (and believe it or not, the cold becomes much easier to bear the more regularly you do it).
8. DO lower leg strengthening exercises as much as possible. Possibly the most important of the list, because often, a lack of strength is the main culprit of a case of shin splints. Try heel-toe raises (standing on your heels and raising only your toes off of the ground). Also, pretend your big toe is the point of a pen and spell out your ABC’s in the air. There are tons of strange and exaggerated walks that will exercise a different muscle set in your lower legs (all effective, all make you look very strange). These exercises should be done before every run as well as on your own throughout the day (i.e. tapping your foot at your desk). Make up a routine and stick with it. The numbers can be arbitrary, as long as they make you feel the burn and are done with consistency.
9. DO maintain your aerobic fitness by cycling, swimming, and/or performing any other non weight-bearing aerobic activity. Your running economy will suffer when you take time off, but as far as cardiovascular fitness goes, your heart can’t tell the difference between 150 BPM while running, cycling, swimming, or thumb wrestling. That way, when you return to consistent running, there will be much less time before you are back to where you were.
10. DO talk to your coach or trainer at the first sign of shin pain. They may recommend one or more of the above preventative measures. They may suggest changing your running form. It may be necessary to see an orthopedic specialist if your shin splints become more and more painful, to the point of stress fracture.
11. DO listen to your body & trust yourself. Sure, modern medicine is great to have around. But at the end of the day, you’re the one who’s going to be riding around in that smelly body of yours for 80 years, so fight for it! Rely on yourself. Textbooks are eventually re-written, and doctors are humans who make mistakes like anyone. Once you learn proactive injury prevention methods that work for you, it’s like developing a vaccine to the runner’s common cold!