I get shin splints all the time, what causes them and how do I avoid getting them?
Before answering your question, it's important to note that runners often call any lower leg pain shin splints, but stress fractures of the bone, compartment syndrome and even inflammation of the tissue that covers the shinbone all cause soreness in the lower leg. If you're unsure of which ailment you may be suffering from, a visit to the doctor might be the best way to rule out any of the above, more serious problems.
Actual shin splints occur when too much stress is put on your lower leg muscles, causing them to tear where they connect to the shin. Several factors can trigger shin splints; three of the most common causes are increased mileage, toe running and hard running surfaces or old running shoes, both of which are poor shock absorbers.
Beginning runners who try to build up their mileage too quickly or veteran runners who suddenly add on lots of miles may experience shin splints because of the sudden pressure put on untrained muscles. The same is true for runners who start running hills or significantly increase the number of hills in their practice runs. The quick changes don't allow the lower leg muscles enough time to build up the strength required for the new workouts.
Toe-runners, or runners who only hit the ground with the balls of their foot, are another group at risk for suffering from shin splints. Extra strain is put on the lower leg muscles when the heel never touches the ground. Similarly, the lower leg suffers undue stress when old running shoes become poor shock absorbers or when a running terrain is too hard.
Gradually building up your miles, regularly replacing shoes and seeking out dirt running trails are all ways to reduce your chance of getting shin splints. Even unaffected runners should know, however, that keeping lower leg muscles strong and stretched is the best way to keep shin splints away. There are stretches and exercises that are easy to find and easy to do which are specifically geared towards shin splint prevention.
One good stretch is simply pointing your toes behind you while in a kneeling position, then sit down slowly on top of your feet. A favorite strengthening exercise of MarathonGuide.com's editor is stretching your leg straight out in front of you (you can be seated) and then writing all the letters of the alphabet in the air with your big toe.
Good luck, and remember that the best way to recover from shin splints is to rest!
- Beth Dyba
Beth is a member of the MarathonGuide.com staff, writing articles, answering questions and generally helping to maintain this website.