If you are a runner, you have probably experienced shin splints, a generalized lower leg pain just below the knee on either the front outside part of the leg or the inside of the leg. Specialists are still undecided about the source of shin splint pain. It could be the result of tears in the muscle as it pulls off the shinbone or it could be inflammation of the thin sheath of tissue that wraps around the tibia. Regardless of the reason, shin splint pain can range from annoying to debilitating. As with most running injuries things can get worse if you choose to “run through” shin splints.
The most common cause of shin splints is doing “too much, too fast.” For this reason alone, shin splints tend to occur in runners new to the sport or those who are intensifying their training. After some off time during the winter months, runners launching into new programs can find themselves quickly hobbled. Likewise, high school runners ramping up for the spring track season can be particularly susceptible to shin splints.
What can be done to avoid this painful and inconvenient condition? Runners get in trouble when they ignore the ten percent rule and pile on the miles. Only add ten percent of the previous week’s total mileage when increasing each week. This gradual increase helps build bone density. New runners or people who are beginning to intensify training are letting their enthusiasm outstrip their bodies’ ability to adapt to the high impact stresses of running. As one runs more, the tibia becomes stronger and thicker and bone density increases. Therefore, stress adaptation is the name of the game when it comes to shin splints.
Unfortunately, before the body completely adapts to the stresses of running, there can be some pain and novice runners especially need to be patient and stick to a long-term plan of development rather than busting their legs up. So, a word of warning is necessary: if runners continue to run more and more on shin splints –– ignoring the injunction against too many miles, too soon –– shin splints can turn into a stress fracture. Stress fractures are not good.
Some self-diagnosis techniques can help you sort out whether you are suffering from shin splints or something more serious that would benefit from a trip to the doctor. The pain of shin splints is more general when compared to a stress fracture. Try pressing your fingertips along your shin. If you can find an acute spot of sharp pain, it is likely the sign of a stress fracture. Are you feeling less shin pain when you wake up in the morning? This could also be an indication that you have a stress fracture, since the bone has rested all night. Shin splints, by comparison, usually feel worse in the morning because the soft tissue has tightened during the night.
What should you do if you are suffering from shin splints? There are some immediate treatments that you can try, as well as some more long-term fixes.
Invest in one of these –– your legs will love you
(Strengthening your calf muscles should help to absorb some shock, thus reducing the strain on your tibia.)
Rest –– it can be good for what ails you
Longer-term ways to address shin splints all revolve around reducing stress to the tibia. One way to do this is to reduce the impact loading placed on the tibia by increasing your stride frequency. Yes, increasing your cadence closer to that magic 180 steps per minute will make it just about impossible to spend too much time in the air and will reduce shock up through your tibia as you stride.
Use one of these to assess your cadence
Another way to prevent shin splints is to ease into a new training routine. Religiously follow the ten percent rule and make sure that you have established a good mileage base to make sure that your legs are ready for the training that you are asking of them.
Finally –– especially for us “masters” runners (OK, older runners) –– try replacing intense interval sessions on the track with hill workouts. You’ll get the same benefits with less stress on your muscular-skeletal system. Remember, preventing and treating shin splints is all about reducing stress and impact loading.
To conclude, I’m going to say it again: with many running injuries, taking a few days off will do wonders. Most minor aches and pains, including shin splints, can clear up with a few days off of running. Don’t worry, you won’t lose fitness –– you’ll probably come back stronger!