Thursday, July 31, 2014

Shin Splints and You: What You can do about these Pests

When I run, I tend to get the dreaded, god-awful lower-leg pain that plagues many runners, newbies and experienced alike. You know what I mean: Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome, or as normal non-medical people call it, shin splints.

Though I do have all kinds of running goals as part of being healthy (races, etc.), you will likely never hear me say I like/love running. I love the power I gain from it (getting faster, gaining endurance, etc.) and the physical benefit of helping me lose weight, but the running itself-meh. I'm sure there are many people who feel the same. This feeling only gets compacted when the elation of your hard-won victory (time or distance) is short-lived because it is followed by pain. Would I like running better if I didn't get shin splints? Maybe, maybe not.

But since it is ultimately part of my long-term goals (to run a marathon someday), and I want to do well at it even if I don't love it, I decided to do some research on ways to help shin splints. It turns out, my instincts were correct, and there a few basic moves you can do to help them (which I already do, so I will need to remember to include them more often). I will get to these in a minute, but first let's talk about shin splints themselves.

What are Shin Splints?
Most simply, shin splints are pain in the front lower leg during or after activities such as running, dancing, etc. It can be towards the sides or straight down below the knee cap. In my experience, it also sometimes includes my ankles becoming tight. Different people experience different things.

What Causes Shin Splints?
Mayo Clinic's very brief description states: "Shin splints are caused by repetitive stress on the shinbone and the connective tissues that attach your muscles to the bone." A more complete description can be found on this site, but the basic gist is that stress and pressure on your bones can cause them.

How can you help Shin Splits?
And finally, what you may have come here for: How can you take care of these irritating things? There are several ways you can help treat/prevent further shin splints. A quick internet search will show you dozens and dozens of different exercises and tricks you can use, but here are some of the most common ones:

-Stretch: It is common knowledge that stretching promotes flexibility and can help alleviate pain in muscles because it expands muscles that have been contracted by exercise. It is hotly debated and highly studied if you should stretch before or after exercise, so I'll leave that to your trainer or doctor to make recommendations for you, but the consensus is that stretching is good for you. You should be doing this even if you don't have shin splints. 

-Toe-Taps are a good way to exercise your shins to strengthen them. (I call them toe-taps, you may call them shin raises.) I find it easier to do them when seated on the edge of a chair, but you can also do them standing.  With feet flat on floor, lift toes toward legs until you feel it in your shin area, and return to flat. Think about the inverse of a calf raise. Instead of raising heels, you will raise toes.  Here is a visual--this is not my image so I don't control if it will always be there. How many times you do this depends on you and your abilities.

-Ankle Circles can help loosen and strengthen your ankles. Make sure to rotate in both directions to get the full benefit. Again, how many times you do this depends on you and your abilities. If you need extra challenge, you could always add in ankle weights. 

-Strengthen Your Calves: There is a lot of information about strengthening calves and shin splints to be found. Here is a great article that covers it better than I can condense it or explain it. 

-Rest: When experiencing symptoms, make sure to rest up. Use ice, elevation, and heat in a combination that helps you. 

-Make sure you have proper gear. What proper gear is, is relative to the individual, and it may take some experimenting to find it. At the very least, you should have well-fitting shoes that give you support where you need it most-which also varies by individual. Some people also use things like braces or wraps to help
-Change your stride/gait or form. This is a last resort option, if all else fails to work. That being said,  it is CRUCIALLY IMPORTANT that you do not attempt this on your own, and instead consult with a medical professional such as a Physical Therapist. That point cannot be emphasized enough. If you have tried everything else and still have problems, there may be something entirely different than shin splints going on. Consult with your Medical Professional to rule anything else out and/or to work on changing gait or "strike pattern" (the position your foot is in when it hits the ground).

Above all else, Listen to your Body. While a lot of pain while working out can be psychological (mind over body), only you know how much pain you can tolerate and if something doesn't feel right. Listen to those clues that your body gives you--pain included--to know what's going on and if you should do something about it.

I hope these tips help. If you have one that isn't listed, please feel free to share it in the comments!

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