Welcome to Shin Splint Season!
How to Avoid and Treat a Common Injury for Runners and Fast Walkers
Over cold winters, many of us lapse into exercise hibernation. That bad habit has been magnified this year with Covid-19 guidance. We have been encouraged to stay indoors and isolate. If we are runners, or fast walkers, we may have slipped into a rut of not doing much cardiovascular exercise.
Now, as spring emerges and Covid-19 restrictions are being gradually lifted, we are looking to get back into shape. It feels liberating for the vaccinated who have dutifully masked up, kept their distance from others, and avoided crowds.
It follows that we are now inspired to head out for our first run or walk in a long time. We may overdo it – attempting the distances at a pace we kept before the grey of winter set in. And shortly after those first efforts at fitness this season, we may feel pain in the inner or outer part of our lower legs. We end up paying the price for our exuberance after a long layoff. We may have shin splints.
What are the symptoms of this common lower leg injury? What causes it? How can we treat it and avoid it? We’ll take a look at answers to these key questions and more.
Shin Splint Symptoms and Causes
The most common symptoms of shin splints start with the gradual onset of pain on either the front and outside or the inside of the shin. The inside of the lower leg may be tender when touched. The shin may also be puffy or red.
What causes it? Shin splints may be the result of:
- Running or walking (or dancing) too much, too soon. If you haven’t been exercising for a while, you should ease into it slowly, and build your endurance gradually each week.
- Old or worn-out running shoes. Using running shoes beyond their effective life can lead to a variety of injuries including shin splints as well as ankle sprains, lower back pain, runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis, and more. Speak to an expert about the right shoe features for you and consider having several pairs so that you can rotate their use.
- Musculoskeletal issues. People who have flat feet, high arches, or very rigid arches. These conditions may result in your muscles and bones not absorbing or distributing the force from foot to ground impact well. Weakness in the stabilizing muscles of the hip and core may also be a contributing issue.
- Increased body weight. Being overweight, or being obese, can lead to a higher risk for shin splints.
The RICE technique is a good first step for treating shin splints at home. This acronym stands for “rest, ice, compression, and elevation” of your leg. Rest by avoiding high-impact activities and give the legs a period to recover from the repetitive pounding. Ice your leg for periods of 15-30 minutes for 2-3 times a day. Wrap your lower leg in a towel or use an ace bandage to provide compression and keep it stable. And then elevate your leg to let it rest.
If the pain persists, seek medical help to rule out a more serious injury. It is possible that your issue may be a stress fracture or compartment syndrome. If your doctor recommends it, you may also take anti-inflammatories to help reduce the swelling and inflammation.
Avoiding Shin Splints
When you are involved in high-impact activities such as running or jumping, or even fast walking, it involves a dynamic whole-body movement. It requires that a combination of multiple joints and muscles work together to allow perfect fluid movement.
If joints or muscles are overworked or don’t function in sync with each other, injuries can result. In this article, we’ve been talking about one common injury that can result from these activities – shin splints. As we’ve discussed, this condition is associated with a sharp or dull nagging pain in the front of your lower leg.
Here are some of our tips to prevent them in the first place:
- Build Strength: Before running, jumping, or fast walking, exercise to strengthen your core. This will help you stay balanced when you are working out. It’s also a good idea to strengthen and stretch the lower part of your body – from your hips down to your ankles. Strengthen your legs with calf stretches and walking on your heels daily. And always do warm-up and cool-down stretches before and after you exercise. The stronger your body is, the better it can handle the impact of exercise.
- Wear the Correct Footwear: Choosing a running or athletic shoe can be challenging. There are many, many brands and each of them offers dozens of different designs and features. There is no best shoe for everyone. But there is a best shoe that will work optimally for you. A Physical Therapist can help you select the best shoe, as well as can the staff at a top-notch running shoe store in your neighborhood. Road Runner Sports offers a handy online guide which can be found here.
- Periodically Change Out Your Footwear: If you have flat feet, arch supports can help prevent shin splints. Shock-absorbing shoe insoles can also reduce stress on your legs and lower the possibility of getting a shin splint. However, these helpful features and others will wear out long before they visually appear to be worn. Most experts recommend changing out your shoes after every few hundred miles of use.
- Manage Your Body Weight: Your body mechanics are such that being just 10 pounds overweight will increase the force on your knees by 30 to 40 pounds with every step that you take. There is similar magnified stress on your other weight-bearing joints from excess weight. Losing weight will not only decrease the likelihood of suffering shin splints, but it is a key to avoiding achy, swollen, and stiff joints.
- Avoid Sudden Increases in Physical Activity: Gradually increase activities such as running, jumping, and walking. This includes spreading out days between activities and/or doing alternate forms of exercise. Be realistic with your weekly goals as you build toward the milestones that you have set for yourself to achieve.
- Avoid Muscle Stress: In addition, to gradually build up the time you run, work out or walk, keep in mind the other things you can do to lessen the stress you put on your shins. Exercise on softer surfaces wherever possible, such as grass, dirt, synthetic tracks and fields. Exercising on hard concrete increases the force that your bones and muscles have to absorb, which can cause muscle fatigue, overuse, and ultimately, shin splints. Try to run on even surfaces, as running downhill may seem easy, but the mechanics of doing it pulls sharply on your shin muscles.
- Use Correct Form When You Run or Walk: Sometimes all it takes is a small change in the way you run or move to lower your risk of getting shin splints. Your running mechanics should emphasize avoiding injuries rather than gaining a little more speed. For example, when you run, don’t push off with your toes. Don’t land on your heel. These two motions can stress your shin and calf muscles. Instead, relax your lower legs when you run and land on your mid-foot.
May you have a happy, shin-splint-free spring and summer!