Wondering what the most common injury that I see these days on our high school running team? Shin splints! Almost everyone goes through them at some point – some much worse than others and some facing the pain for a much longer time period than others. The “shin splint” has also, a result, become the catch-all term for lower leg pain that occurs below the knee either on the front outside part of the leg (anterior shin splints) or the inside of the leg (medial shin splints).
The question is why and how to prevent/lessen them once they’ve hit.
I’ll start out with the why:
A primary culprit causing shin splints is a sudden increase in distance or intensity of a workout schedule. This increase in muscle work can be associated with inflammation of the lower leg muscles, those muscles used in lifting the foot (the motion during which the foot pivots toward the tibia). Such a situation can be aggravated by a tendency to pronate the foot (roll it excessively inward onto the arch). Also, a tight Achilles tendon or weak ankle muscles are also often implicated in the development of shin splints. (This is another reason that slow mileage build-up is so important for the body.
So what do do with your shins once you are feeling the pain?
- Ice your shins to reduce the inflammation (or pain)! The best way, we’ve found, is getting small dixie cups and filling them with water; putting them in the freezer and once frozen take them out, rip off the lip of the cup and run the frozen cups up and down your shins for 10 minutes each. Take a break and do it again. Some people will say to stop running – but this option is unfortunately not possible for all of us! As an athlete, you need to decide how bad the pain is and whether you can push through or not. Injuring yourself worse is not a good option either.
- Gently stretch your Achilles if you have medial shin splints, and your calves if you have anterior shin splints. Also, try this stretch for your shins: Kneel on a carpeted floor, legs and feet together and toes pointed directly back. Then slowly sit back onto your calves and heels, pushing your ankles into the floor until you feel tension in the muscles of your shin. Hold for 10 to 12 seconds, relax and repeat.
- In a sitting position, trace the alphabet on the floor with your toes. Do this with each leg. Or alternate walking on your heels for 30 seconds with 30 seconds of regular walking. Repeat four times. These exercises are good for both recovery and prevention. Try to do them three times a day.
- If you continue running, wrap your leg before you go out. Use either tape or an Ace bandage, starting just above the ankle and continuing to just below the knee. Keep wrapping your leg until the pain goes away, which usually takes three to six weeks. Other options – if the pain is excruciating – are: cross-training for a while to let your shin heal. Swim, run in the pool or ride a bike. (See my post on pool running.)
- When you return to running, increase your mileage slowly. As I said, the cause of shin splints if often increasing your mileage too quickly.
- Also, make sure you wear the correct running shoes for your foot type specifically, over pronators should wear motion-control shoes. Severe overpronators may need orthotics.
- Have two pairs of shoes and alternate wearing them to vary the stresses on your legs.
- Avoid hills and excessively hard surfaces until shin pain goes away completely, then re-introduce them gradually to prevent a recurrence.
- If you are prone to developing shin splints, stretch your calves and Achilles regularly as a preventive measure.
Questions? Just ask!
Additional resources: MedicineNet.com