Many runners seem to get shin splints at some point. They can manifest as a mild shin pain or in the most extreme case, if not treated early on, they can eventually lead to a stress fracture (if the runner ignores the pain & does not rest to allow healing).
Many things can cause shin splints. Some of the most common are:
- Too much, too soon! Beginner runners will often increase their distance and/or speed too quickly. This can lead to injury. So always build your mileage slowly and steadily. Also pushing off with the toes can put too much strain on the shins.
- Heel striking. Try not to land on the heel, with a straight leg, as this is high impact and can lead to injury.
- Downhill running. Often when going down steep hills, runners slow themselves down by landing heavily on the heels. This does have a braking effect but puts tremendous strain on the lower legs which can lead to shin splints.
- Dorsiflexing the foot. Many runners dorsiflex the foot (pull the toes towards the shin) just before they land. To do this they contract the shin muscles. Then the runner lands on the heel, immediately the rest of the foot slams down onto the ground. This pulls sharply against the contracted shin muscle. This leg action repeated on a regular basis (especially downhill) can lead to injury and inflammation around the shin.
- Running on the forefoot. Running on the fore-foot and pushing off with the toes also puts a big load on the shin and calf muscles. That’s why it’s best to land mid-foot and not push off too much as you run. Instead use a whole body lean (no bending at the waist) to move you forward.
Things to work on
It’s a good idea to stretch the calves and the Achilles to make sure they are not too tight. Also strengthening exercises like calf rises can help.
But one of the best ways to avoid shin splints is to work on your technique. Relax your lower legs as much as possible. Land with a mid-foot strike on a bent leg under the knee. Try to relax the shin muscles as much as possible so that you don’t dorsi-flex the foot as you land. Use gravity and your core to move you forward rather than pushing off with the calf muscles. This takes the strain off the lower legs as you run.
Also practice the sandpit exercise regularly. This is when you use a sand pit at a running track etc. The aim is to walk and then run across the sand pit without heel-striking or pushing off with the toes. To succeed at this exercise you must be able to leave uniform foot prints in the sand, without any dishing at the front from pushing off or craters from heel striking. Its takes practise, but teaches you how to run with relaxed lower legs. (Details in the Chi Running book)
So the best way to avoid shin splints is to build up your mileage slowly. It’s also a good idea to have an easy week every month when you cut back on your running and allow the body to recover. Then work on your running technique to make it more energy efficient and less high impact.