Shin Splints--They Don't Have to Last Forever
You were running the other day and you felt a pain near the tibia in your lower leg.
It could be a lot of things.
But if you determine that your injury is shin splints, don’t worry. This is an injury that affects a lot of runners from time to time.
The question is, what do you do about it?
In this article we’ll talk a little bit about what shin splints are and how to manage the injury so that you can back to running full strength as soon as possible.
What are shin splints?
Anatomy of the Lower Leg
The lower leg is made up of two bones, two major muscles, and a number of other smaller muscles and connective tissue.
The tibia is that big bone that runs the length of your shin, and this is often where you will feel the pain, especially when you begin to run, or at the end of a longer distance.
In the back of your lower leg, comprising most of the volume of the calf, are the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles.
Source of the Pain
Though stretching and strengthening the muscles in the lower leg can be helpful in avoiding recurrence of shin splints, pain arising from a muscular or bone injury are different problems altogether.
If you have shin splints, your pain isn’t arising from any of the tissues mentioned above. Instead, shin splints are pain resulting from repeated trauma to the other tissues surrounding the tibia.
What You Can Do
Once you’ve determined that the injury is actually shin splints and not something else, you have an important decision to make: are you going to try to run through the pain?
1. Don’t run
This is a viable-- and some would say advisable-- option.
Shin splints are very much an injury that results from repeated trauma to tissues that aren’t sufficiently built up to withstand an increase of mileage and/or speed in your running workouts.
What that means is that continuing to run at all could significantly increase the amount of time it will take you to heal. There is also the possibility that continuing to run on legs that are hurting from shin splints could result in more serious injuries like stress fractures.
Taking the time off to rest, heal, and build up these tissues so that they are better able to handle the pounding when you get back on the road is a great way to minimize the time you have to deal with this painful injury.
2. Reduce Your Mileage
If you decide not to take the time off and want to continue running, it is highly advisable that you significantly cut back on your mileage.
Though the presence of shin splints is, in part, a reflection of weakness in the tissues of your lower leg, the research seems to indicate that it is primarily about increasing your mileage too quickly without inducing your body to slowly adapt over the course of a training program.
Reducing your mileage for a period of time allows your body to adapt more fully to the pounding.
You have the option of reducing the number of miles you run, or you can also cut back on the number of days each week that you run. In either case, the net result should be a reduced number of overall miles, which will give your body the chance it needs to heal.
3. Reduce Your Intensity
As mentioned above, the mantra with shin splints is “too far, too fast”, so the intensity of your training plays no less a role when you get shin splints.
Just as decreasing your mileage overall will allow your body to fully adapt to the stress that it must endure, likewise reducing the intensity of those miles will reduce the irritation in those tissues that causes the pain.
4. Wrap Your Leg
Another way that a lot of people swear by to reduce the pain of shin splints and allow the tissues in the lower leg to heal is to wrap your lower leg with some sort of compression sleeve, compression socks, or athletic tape.
Compression is a popular way to avoid pain in the lower legs. It limits the movement of those tissues, which may thus prevent the small tears that lead to micro-bleeds and pain.
There are also some indications that compression (but not too much compression, which could actually impede circulation) can encourage greater efficiency in blood flow through the tissues, which is a good thing.
The compression sock or sleeve has the benefit of not ripping the hair out of your lower leg, which is just as painful (if not more so) than the shin splints themselves. The downside of these is that they can be expensive.
Tape is a very popular and inexpensive option. If you decide to go the tape route, you’ll have to deal with the potential problem that tape can grab your leg hair. You can either shave your lower leg, or you can buy the foam athletic wrap that is mean to go under tape for just this purpose.
5. Change Your Shoes
Sometimes the problem is your shoes. As mentioned elsewhere, worn running shoes can defeat the shock-absorbing qualities that running shoes are meant to provide. Sometimes just switching out those aging shoes for a newer pair will allow your legs to bear up under the pounding.
You may also need a different type of shoe. A lot of people choose shoes based on how they look but in reality there are different types of shoes for different types of runners.
If you are a larger runner, or if you are a more biomechanically inefficient runner, you may want to look into buying motion control shoes. These prevent the foot from rolling in too far, and some runners have reported relief from shin splints simply by using these motion-control shoes.
Other runners may need shoes with a bit more cushioning.
Whatever the case, one possible way to run through shin splints is to give your legs the right shoes they need.
6. After running: RICE
In addition to trying to the minimize the stress on your legs, there are things you can do after the run to speed recovery and minimize the amount of pain you suffer.
A caution here: so often we are conditioned to think that pain is a bad thing, but pain is a useful tool. Pain is the means by which you body calls your attention to injury. The history of sports is full of athletes who have ignored their body's pain indicator, resulting in more severe damage than if they had just addressed the issue at the outset.
With that said, if you do have pain and decide to run, "RICE" is your best friend.
"RICE" has become a bit of a mantra in the running community, and for good reason: it represents a multi-pronged approach that has led to great results for a lot of runners.
What does "RICE" stand for? Here's a rundown:
Rest your legs: The less you walk around with shin splints after you've run, the more chance your body will have to knit those blood vessels and tissues back together.
Ice: Icing serves a similar purpose, speeding blood flow to the area, an important factor in the healing process.
Compression: We've already talked about compression as a way to avoid the pain in the first place, but wrapping your leg with a compression device such as an ACE bandage can speed healing and minimize pain.
Elevation: Finally, elevation aids circulation and minimizes the weight-bearing that can add stress to the lower legs.
7. Vitamin I
As mentioned above, the idea of taking something that makes your pain go away is an enticing one, but make sure your pain isn't telling you about a more serious problem. But if you insist on running with pain, ibuprofen or some other analgesic can reduce your pain.
We highly recommend you consult with a doctor before taking any medication.
So there you have it. There are ways to avoid shin splints. But if you end up with that nagging pain in your lower leg, there are things you can do. Just make sure that whatever you're doing allows to keep running.