Shin Splint Prevention & Recovery for Distance Runners
Shin Splints can come in many shapes and forms, but often the causes for this pain in the lower leg are similar. In most cases, runners can apply a few simple fixes to get rid of shin pain and prevent it from ever coming back.
There are many potential causes of Shin Splints. Here are a few to look at.
- Overstriding/Excessive Heel Striking (“Checkmark” landing causes a greatly enhanced impact quotient)
- Dorsiflexed landing (Toes up, heel down position causes excess shin muscle strain)
- Too tight of laces over the top of the foot
- Too tight of shoes
- Overtraining or Erratic Training (As always!)
- Weak foot and lower leg muscles
1) Correct running technique to avoid a “checkmark” landing (landing with a heel strike out in front of the body).
Landing with the foot more parallel to the ground underneath a bent knee helps reduces initial impact up to 3-5 times. Landing this way also prevents the toes from being being pointed upward when landing, which keeps the shin muscles from being strained and becoming tight.
A few technique points are worth emphasizing when it comes to shin splints:
- Cadence: Increasing leg turnover will lead to decreased initial impact with the ground and reduced ground contact times. Simply increasing a runner’s cadence by 20 steps per minute (3-4 steps per leg every 20 seconds) can improve a runner’s landing angle enough to help alleviate shin pain. Around 180 steps per minute (simply count 30 steps on one leg in 20 seconds) is widely considered the ultimate goal, but measurably increasing your cadence 20 steps per minute from where it is should give considerable improvement.
- Landing Angle/Foot Strike: Simply allowing the foot to land closer to the body in a more parallel position to the ground (rather than a toes up landing) generally works wonders for distance runners suffering from shin pain. This bent knee landing pulls the impact off of the shins and joints and places it on the big muscles of the leg. To feel the difference in shin tightness between landing with a heavy heel strike (toes up landing) and a more level landing, simply sit down, place your hands on your shins, and pull your toes up towards your face. Feel how tight the shins are. Now allow the foot to sit flat on the ground underneath your knee and notice how loose the shins are. Landing in a position similar to this can work wonders for shin pain!
- Arms: A simple arm trick to help the foot land more level underneath a bent knee is to not allow the elbows to cross forward in front of the hips. Arms should be relaxed and pump back to drive momentum, but should never cross forward pass the hips, unless the runner is running very fast.
- Posture: Keeping good posture can also improve landing angle and keep pressure off of the shins. Keeping the back straight and never bending at the waist is key. While running, running “proud” with the chest and hips forward while keeping the back straight will make it very easy to run with less impact on the shins and more efficiency overall.
2) Loosen the laces over the top of the foot.
The muscles on top of the foot are connected with the muscles on the front of the leg. Because of this, having tight laces on a shoe can actually cause the entire lower leg to tense up. Keeping the laces loose enough over the top of the foot to slip a finger under can help relax the shin muscles.
3) Shoe Fit
Most running shoes are built to have about 15mm (2/3 inch) between the toes and the end of the shoe. Fitting this way so that the foot and toes feel very loose will help relax the foot muscles that are connected to the shins.
4) Run More Often
Research suggests that shin splints are far more prominent in those who run only a couple times a week vs. those who run nearly every day. Spreading the training load out more evenly by running more often can be very effective in reducing shin pain. Increasing training frequency while decreasing intensity is generally very helpful in recovery. See Page 8 Here
5) Be careful with downhill and speed
It is recommended to be careful in steep downhill training or speed training. Both of these place excess forces on the lower leg muscles and can irritate tender lower leg muscles.
Many people believe compression can be helpful in reducing the excess muscle vibrations caused upon landing that may contribute to shin pain. Since shin pain is often caused by shin muscles tearing away from the bone, compression can help hold things in place and reduce the impact vibrations that can cause this. It is recommended to use compression sleeves or socks that provide very snug or graduated compression as this will be more effective in increasing blood flow, lymph return, and reducing muscle vibrations.
7) Soft, Flexible Support
For short-term relief, it may be helpful to add some support in the form of an inexpensive soft and flexible insert like Bridge Soles. These insoles not only have a deep heel cup and a soft arch, but they have a full metatarsal pad which could be helpful for those suffering from shin splints. These will also help negate some of the effects of toe spring in your shoes and help the toes not point up towards the shins as much.
With that said, while any change in a runner’s routine will often end up in immediate changes for better or worse, it is highly unlikely that increasing the amount of cushioning in a shoe or using orthotics will create a long-term solution to shin pain. This is because the body has built in impact sensing behavior—if the body senses it will be landing on something soft—it will simply land harder and vice versa. Also, while an orthotic or insert may be necessary at first, and provide some correction and short-term relief due to the change, it is likely that any firm or custom style insole or orthotic will provide support which will eventually make the foot and lower leg muscles weaker. Typically, having weaker muscles from wearing an insert will result in becoming dependent on the insert and have very undesirable long-term effects.
7) Foot and lower leg strengthening
Strengthening the muscles of the foot and lower leg can be very helpful in preventing long-term shin pain. The most targeted way to do this can be easily accomplished by running barefoot on a natural surface such as grass. Start with only 30 seconds of barefoot running and add an additional 30 seconds to your routine once or twice a week. This will also help reinforce and teach proper running technique.
Additionally, recent research has shown that simply wearing barefoot style shoes the majority of the day was similar in effectiveness as a full foot strengthening regimen.
We recommend following accounts like Gait Happens and My Foot Function for exercises and other ideas for strengthening your feet.
How cushioned Zero Drop shoes with a Foot-shaped toe box may help alleviate shin splints:
-Cushioned Zero Drop (flat, no elevated heel) shoes such as Altra can help a runner to land more underneath their body, displacing the initial impact transient often associated with shin pain. Zero Drop shoes also help to reduce ground contact time, muscle contraction time and firing of the muscles on the front of the leg. Reducing these things can have a very positive effect on shin pain. In addition, due to not having excess height or weight in the heel, cushioned Zero Drop shoes allow the foot to stay more parallel to the ground and avoid the dorsiflexed (toes up) landing position that leads to tight shin muscles. (Disclaimer: Running with a checkmark landing in a Zero Drop shoe may result in increased shin tightness)
-Shoes with a foot-shaped design allow for much better toe spread and relaxation than traditional footwear. In addition, the design helps alleviate pressure on top of the foot that can lead to tight muscles in the shin area.
This is the first post I’ve found that actually confirmed my theory that maybe my new shin and calf issues could be from my lacing. I’ve researched and found nothing, asked a running store, and they said thats not it. But I had a strong feeling it was. I’m glad I’m not crazy lol. This was really informative, thank you!
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