23 years ago when I decided to join my high school’s track team, I ran happily for a couple of months before being blindsided by a painful case of shin splints. I remember one of my teammates at the time telling me, “Oh no! Shin splints means your muscles are pulling away from your bones!” Let me tell you, that’s a terrifying diagnosis. Thank goodness it is not true. Sadly I still hear a lot of runners say that phrase.
“Shin Splints” is a term that gets used a lot to describe any pain in the front of the lower leg. The actual cause of the pain can be one of a number of things. Most commonly the pain is actually a condition called Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome (MTSS). MTSS occurs when the amount of stress we place on our legs increases too much too soon. This is why we often see it in brand new runners or in runners who have begun to train for a longer race distance, like a marathon, and increase their weekly mileage too quickly.
It is very possible to prevent this injury from occurring and prevention is wonderful because it means you won’t have to run through pain or take any valuable time off from your training. Here are the 3 key rules for preventing MTSS.
#1. The 10% Rule – Only increase your mileage volume by 10% per week. If right now you run 3 miles, 5 days per week, that is 15 miles. 10% of 15 is 1.5 miles. That means that when you are ready to increase your training volume, you can safely begin by increasing to 16.5 miles the following week. This can be done by distributing that extra distance throughout the week or by adding a longer run of 4.5 miles to just one day. If you are planning to start training for a longer race, it is very important to find a training plan that doesn’t begin at a weekly mileage that’s significantly higher than what you are used to.
#2 Keep Calf Muscles “Loose” – Invest in a foam roller, lacrosse ball or any massage tool that you will use. And then use it before runs, after runs, or while you are hanging out watching Netflix! Tight calf muscles are almost always closely linked to shin splints. Our calves work hard when we run and they deserve a little TLC to prepare them for movement as well as to help them recover after a run.
#3 Work Your Glutes – “Really?” You might ask. “Work my glute muscles to prevent shin pain?” Absolutely. Our gluteal muscles control the motion of our hips. And our hips control the motion of the rest of our lower bodies. Weak glute muscles lead to instabilities that can place unnecessary amounts of pressure on our shins. If I were to recommend only one exercise for every single runner to do, it would be the clamshell exercise. If I were to recommend more than one, it would be the many variations of the clamshell that increase the strength, endurance, and stability of the Gluteus Medius muscle.
These same 3 rules are also instrumental in rehabilitating a runner that is treating or recovering from MTSS. If you adjust your mileage, work on massaging your calf muscles and strengthening your glutes but do not feel your pain resolving, please contact me for further evaluation!