The Whole Story on Shin Splints

If I were to do a study regarding-running related injuries, I'd bet money that the hottest topic would be shin splints. There are very few runners I've come across that haven't, at some point in their running career, had a case of shin splints; varying in degree from mild shin pain to a debilitating stress fracture of the tibia.

But although it is one of the most common injuries know to runners, it is both curable and preventable. If you're concerned about the health of those shins of yours, read on and find out how you can avoid having shin splints for the rest of your life.

What are shin splints?

Shin splints are sort of a catch-all phrase for a number of ailments that occur in the lower leg. The medical name for shin splints is medial tibial syndrome. In the mildest cases, shin splints are the inflammation of the fascia (connective tissue) that covers and connects the muscles of the lower leg to the bone (the tibia). In the worst cases, the fascia is under such stress that it actually separates from the tibia, which is very painful and can, in some cases, involve a rather slow healing process.

How are shin splints caused?

There are two main causes of shin splints: the first is too much impact to the lower legs, which is primarily created by heel striking. The second main cause is overuse of the lower legs while running. Overuse injuries primarily happen when you push off with your toes to propel yourself forward.

Let's review these two issues in more detail:

Too much impact to the lower legs: If you're a heel striker, the repetitive shock of your heels hitting the ground will irritate the fascia (the connective tissue) in the muscles of your lower legs, especially your shins. When the fascia becomes irritated or inflamed you'll feel discomfort in your shins that could worsen over time if no correction is made.

Impact to the lower legs can happen in a variety of ways. Here are a few:

  • Running in old, worn-out running shoes
  • Heavy heal striking
  • Extended downhill running
  • Running on an unstable surface (like snow or ice)
  • Running on a treadmill
  • Running on a side-sloping street

To reduce the amount of shock to your legs, it is important to eliminate any heel strike while running. Heel strike happens when you run with your trunk upright and reach forward with your legs as you stride--commonly called over-striding.

ChiRunning offers a way to eliminate heel strike by leaning forward from your ankles as you run, thereby allowing your foot to strike underneath or even slightly behind your body. This allows you to land on your mid-foot and your legs to swing to the rear as soon as your feet hit the ground, eliminating any heel strike.

Overuse of the lower legs: This is caused by pushing off with the toes, which in turn causes the calf and shin muscles to overwork. Anytime your body weight is supported by your toes, your calves and shins are required to do much more work than they were designed to do.

In fact, if you're pushing off with your toes, you're actually increasing the workload to your calves and shins to be more than your body weight because you're pushing up against the downward pull of gravity. That's simply too big of a job for that relatively small group of lower leg muscles to handle. They'll get overworked and will eventually begin to complain in the form of soreness, inflammation and in some cases, become separated from the bone (the most painful version of shin splints).

Here are some other ways the lower legs can be overused. Beginning runners who are starting up a running program will often run too far or too fast before their legs are ready to sustain the distance or the speed they're running. Add to this the fact that almost all beginning runners push off with their toes, which increases the stress to their unconditioned legs, especially the shins.

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