Thursday, October 7, 2010

Shin Splints

As you know, I took yesterday off to try and give the shin splint in my right leg time to rest.  After some running in place today in my apartment, the splint is not gone but has recovered to a noticeable degree.  Therefore, I've decided to take today off as well.  I will plan on running again tomorrow (just a couple miles) with some walking as well to keep my legs moving.

But I wanted to take today and go over shin splints, which from my own experience and the experience of friends of mine are a very common runner's injury.

Have I had a "shin splint"?
First let's describe and define what is a "shin splint" is.  A shin splint in general terms is a stress injury to the shin.  Most runners would describe it as a pain in the front of the leg that goes away during a run and returns when you stop, often returning more painful than before.  Swelling and redness in the shin can also occur along with pain when the foot is bent downward.  Have you had a pain like this before?

What is a "shin splint"?
Given that a "shin splint" is generally any pain specific to the tibia (shin bone), many physiological conditions are included.  From my experience, the most common cause of this pain is stressing the muscle on the front of the tibia (the muscle that works to flex your foot upwards).

How do you get a "shin splint"?
Shin splints are typically a running injury. The main cause is unbalanced muscles in the lower leg.  Many people blame hills, but in my condition I blame my running form more.  If you allow your heal to hit the ground too hard when running, this forces your foot to immediately bend downward in order to meet the ground.  When this happens, the muscles in the shin are stretched rather quickly and the natural reaction for them is to flex/tighten.  This reactive flexing of those muscles puts an incredible amount of stress on the muscle, tendon, and surrounding connective tissue.  The longer you run, the more stress these tissues are subject to and the worse the splint gets.

How do you treat a "shin splint"?
Rest, Ice/heat, compression.  While a ton of running injuries can be treated once and you're set, shin splints need mainly TIME to heal.  So unfortunately, if you get shin splints, the best thing to do is to take a day off, rest your legs, apply some compression to decrease inflammation, and then cold/heat cycles will both reduce inflammation and relax the muscles.

How do you prevent a "shin splint"?

A few tips on how to avoid "shin splints."

1.  Avoid what causes them. 
2.  Strengthen your weaker leg muscles
3.  Change your running form
4.  Introduce cross-training into your workout
4.  Ease into your training

First, and most obvious, if you find that you get shin splints by running hills, by running on pavement as opposed to trails, or when running a specific way, avoid it. 

However, most people enjoy their hill workouts, their choice of paths (roads or trails), etc.  So for them, I suggest evening out the balance of strength in your legs.  There are plenty of workouts specific to the various muscles in your lower legs that will help you do this.  Stretching will also be helpful to reduce the effect that stress has on any muscle group. 

If your heals hit the ground before the rest of your foot, then the easiest (and most useful) thing you can do is change your running form - stop hitting your heal and causing so much stress!!!  The ball of your foot should hit the ground first, or at least the entire foot altogether.  This will keep the muscles in your leg from having to flex out of stretch reactions.  I admit that this will cause for much more muscle work and you may feel more of a burn in your calves for awhile, but trust me, you will get used to it and your shins will thank you. 

This still may not fully cure shin splints and that's because some of us (yes, I include myself) are simply running too often.  This doesn't mean you need to take a day off, just do a cross-training workout.  Go to the pool and swim, hop on a bike, or go to the gym.  There are plenty of other workouts that can still work your legs but not put as much stress on your shins and they may need that break from time to time.

Finally, this type of injury is even more common to first time runners or even seasoned runners who are just starting to get back into shape.  The reason for this is that your legs need time to get used to that amount of stress and most people tend to run too far too fast too early in their training.  Even the best runners will get shin splints if they "pack on the mileage" too fast.  By this I mean, don't go out and run 10 miles in the first week back to running.  Start with maybe 2-3 miles and ease up to 5.  Then the next week ease up to 6 or 7 and so on.  Your legs take pressure 2-3 times your own body weight every time they hit the ground while running, so give them time to get used to working out again.  I am usually at fault for this final point.  My body is very good at endurance and I often catch myself pushing myself too far too early.

So that's my little blurb on shin splints.  I hope this was in some way helpful.  I know a lot of people who suffer from shin splints and I personally get them quite often (I'm still working on changing my form).  Please let me know if you have any further questions or thoughts. 


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