Written By Barefoot Dawsy
Shin splints are one of those ailments that, legend has it, is cured by barefoot/minimalist running, yet despite this, I’m frequently asked to explain why new runners still get them.
Anyone who has had shin splints knows just how painful they can be – in extreme cases, making running impossible until they heal. The pain is usually felt up and down the front and sides of the lower legs, and can range from being slightly sore to excruciating.
To understand why shin splints may not magically disappear when you slip on a pair of Vibrams, we need to know what they are. The excellent book The Runner’s Body explains that shin splints are actually a symptom of injuries to the tibia.
They can be caused by a number of factors, but the main culprits are doing too much too soon, over training, and bone density issues caused by ageing and/or diet.
The pain we feel as shin splints is actually the bone itself being strained. When we exercise, our bones get torn up a bit, and microfissures develop. When this occurs, the body heals itself, making the bone stronger. This is perfectly natural, and desirable. The problem occurs when we overdo it, and the pain increases as more healing as required.
There are several things you can do to avoid getting shin splints, and some of them are side-effects of learning to run barefoot, which is possibly where the myth started.
Easy Does It
The first and best way to avoid getting shin splints (or any other overuse injury), is to start small, and build gradually. Allowing your body to heal naturally between runs will make you strong over the long haul. This means not only starting with low mileage, but also taking 1-2 days of rest between runs.
Good form is also really important, and the sooner you can learn it, the better off you will be. When we take off our shoes or remove the padding, we need to use our body to cushion the repeated shocks from our footfalls. This is true for both running and walking, and is where a lot of inexperienced runners get into trouble. Again, take it slow, put in the time up front to learn good running form, and it will save you a lot of pain down the track.
How you train is also important. Some exercises, such as uphill running, are excellent for preventing shin splints. It’s hard to overdo it on an uphill, so using them to build up bone and muscles is highly recommended. Conversely running down hills can make matters worse as most runners tend to brake as they run downhill, or else sprint down at full pelt.
An important thing to keep in mind is your cross-training. Running isn’t the only sport that can cause shin splints, and combining it with another high intensity activity can lead to problems. Activities such as box jumps ans sports like basketball that feature a lot of jumping can make overdoing it much more likely. You can still do these sports, but be mindful of impact forces, and learn to use your whole leg to absorb the impact forces generated.
Lastly, it’s really important to eat a healthy diet. When you’re doing a lot of regular exercise, your body needs a lot of raw material to allow you to get fitter and stronger. For runners, this means not only having a good helping of carbs and proteins, but also getting the right vitamins and minerals, especially calcium, for growing strong bones.
Of course shin splints aren’t unique to new runners. Many experienced runners have gone down this road, especially during training for a big event. The key is listening to your body, knowing your limits, and increasing effort gradually. With a bit of care and patience, shin splints should cease to be a concern for the duration of your running life.