Building mileage w/o shin splints

So recently a number of my friends have begrudgingly (I know, I don’t get it either) taken to the trails (on their feet rather than on a cheater-cycle) in attempts to reclaim their fitness/physique of days (read: years) past. In doing so, they have either:

  1. Asked the good Doctor about her opinions on how to safely build up mileage and avoid injury OR
  2. Gotten shin splints

I kid, I kid (in general…not necessarily now though…)

Anyway, these (repetitive) discussions both pre- and post-shin splints made me think I should throw some of these aforementioned opinions up on here.

First, what the hell are shin splints?

Shins splints are a painful shin condition caused most often by the formation of scar tissue in the muscle on the front of the shin. Other causes can include tiny stress fractures that form in the bones of the lower leg and inflammation of the soft tissues of the lower leg from over- or underpronation.

Why does this pesky scar tissue form?

So when running (or lifting weights, or doing virtually any muscle/strength building exercise) the fibers of the muscles that are being exercised are actually broken down. Then, during recovery those muscle fibers are repaired and in the repair process they are built up to be stronger than they were before. Now, in cases when the muscles are broken down to a point beyond what the body is equipped to rebuild, hard, inflexible scar tissue forms in place of the elastic muscle fibers. Consequently, the pain of shin splints is due to this inflexibility of the scar tissue as it pulls against the soft muscle and connective tissue of the shin.

Why do the shin muscles get broken down beyond what the body can handle?

Because shin muscles are sissies.  There are a number of reasons for this actually. To name a few:

  1. A muscle imbalance between the shin and calf muscles
  2. Excessive shock/impact on the shin (think running on concrete vs. running on a nice dirt trail)
  3. Weak, or under trained shin muscles relative to what is being demanded of them (this is why shin splints are often referred to as a “beginners injury”)

What should do when you start to feel shin pain during or after runs?Panic!! Just kidding…well…kind of. You do want to take action ASAP.

  1. Ice the shin for 15 min after your run and maybe once or twice again during the day depending upon how the pain improves after the initial icing.
  2. Deep tissue message the shin to break up the scar tissues. In my opinion this feels really good with icy-hot too.
  3. Stretch your calves, well. Tight calves = increased stress on the shin muscles/connective tissues = more scar tissue = shin splints = bad.
  4. Take a few days off and then ease your way back into your first runs after the days off. At the first sign of the pain returning, stop. Stop. STOP.
  5. If the pain doesn’t return, make sure to run on soft surfaces. Grass and then dirt, and then roads should be the order of preference. Steer clear of sidewalks, they are the devil. (Concrete is a much harder material than even black top. While this may not seem that big of a deal, with every jarring step you take the stress of this extra impact adds up quickly.)
  6. Consider in investing in a new pair of shoes, either if yours have worn down or if you are not running in the right shoe for you. The shoe plays an essential role in helping your foot, thus your body and your shin, hit the ground correctly (duh…I hope). Taking each step in a shoe that causes your body to be incorrectly aligned or doesn’t support those steps properly adds extra stress on quickly.
  7. Make sure you’re increasing your mileage slowly. The rule of thumb is to increase no more than 10%/week. Now of course everyone is different. Some people may be able to increase their mileage 15 or 20% per week for a short time and see no ill effects. Other people may have a hard time ramping it up 5%. If your shins are bothering you, scale it back.

Dr. Trot, you’re not a medical doctor! Why should I believe anything you say? Where else can I go for more information?

Fair enough. Here are a number of resources (medical doctors and otherwise) that I have found useful. Take or leave their advise (in addition to all of the above garbage) at your own risk!

Shin Splints by the Mayo Clinic

Shin Splints by WebMD

Shin Splints Explained by Natural Running Center

The 10-Percent Rule

Happy and comfortable running!

Have anything to add? Anything that I should add? Anything that I should correct?

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