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What to do When You Have Shin Splints

by Holli Childs

I have beaten shin splints. What I mean when I say that is that they will never take me out of training for weeks at a time again. Before I tell you how I did this, let’s first talk about what shin splints are.

According to the Mayo Clinic, shin splints describes pain felt along the tibia, or the shin bone. You might also hear the terms periostitis or tibial stress syndrome. All of these conditions deal with the muscles in your lower leg. When exercising, you put a lot of stress on your muscles and, if they are overworked, inflammation can occur. The inflammation causes extra pressure in the area, resulting in  the pain. It is typically felt along the inside of the shin bone, but can also be felt in other places around the leg. This being said, other conditions also cause pain in the shins that have also been referred to as shin splints. Tight muscles cause pain because they put more stress on the ligaments and tendons.

There are several things that can be done to help prevent and alleviate the pain associated with shin splints.

The first one is a good pair of shoes.

A good pair of shoes provides adequate cushion and support to absorb the impact of the foot strike, and it keeps the foot in better alignment to reduce torsion, or rotational movements, throughout the legs. A good pair of shoes should be in the right category for you, whether it is neutral or stability. It may also include additional arch and heel support in the form of inserts.

The next thing to help prevent shin splints is foam rolling.

It is common for runners to experience tight muscles, especially in their lower legs. Muscle tightness occurs when individual muscle fibers do not relax after repetitive contractions. Foam rolling, also known as self-myofascial release, or SMR, puts pressure on those tight spots, telling the muscles to relax. Once those muscles are relaxed, there is a lot less strain on the tendons and connecting points between the muscle and bone.

Compression socks are another excellent tool in reducing shin splints.

Compression socks do a couple of things to help with shin splints. First, they increase blood flow down through the lower leg and make it easier for oxygen to get through. The body’s vascular system works through muscle contractions. As the blood gets further from the heart, and closer to the ground, the body relies on muscle contractions to help push the blood back up the leg to return to the heart. The blood carries oxygen and other nutrients to the muscles that allows them to repair themselves from the forces felt from impact. It also transports away cellular waste, improving your body’s ability to work effectively in the desired activity. Another benefit of compression socks is that they decrease the muscle vibrations with each foot strike. That helps eliminate the jarring, tearing, and pulling that contribute to shin pain.

We can also use the body’s natural abilities to heal itself to overcome the challenges associated with shin splints.

Ankle rotations strengthen the muscle while increasing the flexibility.

If balanced on one foot, you can rotate your leg around the weight bearing ankle, which will give you increased resistance and allows you complete control on which specific muscles you are targeting. There are a lot of different strengthening and flexibility exercises that can be utilized to make a difference for shin splints. I can go into more detail on that, but it is for another post, at another time.

If you are experiencing shin splints, you should keep doing all these things, but there are some other things you can do to help. You can also use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen or tylenol, to help ease the pain. I do not recommend using this as a tool to help continue training through it. It helps alleviate the pain that you will probably still be feeling for the rest of the day. Throughout the day after your workout, resting and icing it helps the inflammation go down.

Now, you are probably wondering if I used these tips to beat shin splints. It most definitely is. These were key factors, and I used all of them. With each one, I saw a gradual improvement. However, there is still one more factor to keep in mind. Shin splints are typically caused by overtraining. Listen to your body. If you have had severe shin splints, you know how hard they are to deal with. I had them bad enough at one point that a physical therapist recommended I take two weeks off of running, and then slowly ease back into it. It was not easy. But it is what has made the biggest difference in being able to control my shin splints. There are still days when I need to slow down or stop because I can feel the pain coming on. As you begin to feel pain, slow down, cut a long run short, or replace a speed workout with a slow, easy jog. Or, you could  do some cross training to give your legs a rest. Although it is frustrating to have to scale back, it beats a more severe injury or having to stop running entirely for a period of time. Whatever you do, keep your legs happy. You will be a happier runner.

Moral of the story, happy legs equal happy runners. As Brooks likes to say, “Run happy!”

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