That sharp pain in the front of your shin. The sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. The instant realization that the next few weeks will be less running, more icing and lots of hoping.
Most runners at one point have felt the pain of shin splints. From newbies tackling their first 5K to experienced runners mid-season, shin splints can affect anyone. But where do they come from and, most importantly, what can runners do to minimize their risk of getting them? Understanding how the muscles and joints of the lower leg work will help to prevent and treat shin splints effectively.
Shin splints are a type of overuse, or repetitive use, injury. Overuse injuries occur when there's an imbalance between the strength, stability and mobility of an area. In this case, shin splints are usually driven by an underlying weakness in the stabilizing muscles of the foot and ankle. Because of this weakness in one group of muscles, other muscles have to work more. These muscles then become overworked, tight and injured, and the joints in the foot and ankle become less mobile.
Shin splints may be from running too much too soon, or just too much. Treatment that includes myofascial therapy and joint mobilization will help to heal the damaged tissue and restore normal movement. Strengthening the weak muscles will serve not only to address the underlying problem, but also to help prevent shin splints from returning.
Here are the top five tips I give patients to prevent shin splints:
1. Check your footwear.
Overworked stabilizing muscles can also indicate footwear with too little support. Proper support is individual. The jazzy-looking sneakers your buddy has may not be appropriate for you. Take the time to seek out a running store and get fitted for the right pair of shoes.
2. Mobilize the muscles and joints.
The foam roller, or other variations that provide compression and friction to the muscle, are great for DIY soft tissue treatment. The most effective method is slow, controlled rolling with the addition of joint mobilization. For shin splints, work the calf, the shin and bottom of your foot.
3. Strengthen the stabilizing muscles in the lower leg.
It may seem counterintuitive to strengthen overworked muscles, but these muscles have become damaged and need to be healed. Gentle strengthening will help build the muscle to a healthy level. Exercises that challenge your balance such as yoga, working with the Bosu ball or simply adding in a basic strength training class will help restore health to the damaged and overworked muscles.
4. Strong core? Check!
The core muscles around the low back and pelvis help determine how well the joints around them move. A strong core is paramount to maintaining efficiency through the hip, knee, foot and ankle. The stronger your core muscles, the better every other joint complex will work. Bypass the sit ups for a Pilates class that will target your individual weakness.
5. Rest, ice and plan your next race.
Taking control of a situation that feels out of control is powerful. When our bodies get injured, it's important to recognize what we can control, what we can’t and to seek help with the latter. Working with a professional may ease some of the anxiety of the unknown. They can answer questions about when you will be able to return to running, how many miles you should run and how to manage shin splints long term.
Shin splints are a common overuse injury and there are many options for prevention. Most cases of shin splints are treatable. However, pain in the shin can be an indication of a potentially complex problem. It is very important to see a doctor if pain persists for more than a couple of weeks.
A little knowledge can go a long way. Utilizing the time you have already set aside for exercise in a productive way will help your body take care of you!