The Dreaded Shin Splints (aka, 'This dull, aching in my shins makes me WISH my leg were splinted!)
Runners, basketball/tennis players, even cyclists take note - start your program slowly!
As a new runner or player of sprinting-centric sports (basketball, tennis, etc.), you may be prone to developing pain in the front or inside area of your lower leg. This is very common. After more serious conditions are ruled out by your orthopedist or podiatrist (like a stress fracture), you may receive a diagnosis of 'shin splints.' This is a fancy term for a condition that involves inflammation or tears of the muscles of the shin, or the bone to which those muscles attach. While uncomfortable and activity-limiting, they are very often due to simple over-training and/or muscle imbalances in strength and flexibility between the front and the back of your lower leg and ankle.
After consultation with Dr. Blake (or another sports minded doc) about proper footwear selection and the use of orthotics, the following treatments and exercises will help you manage your current discomfort and help ward off future episodes of The Splints.
1. Ice! Nothing reduces inflammation like icing. Ice for 20 minutes per session, as many times as you can in one day. Another option is to use contrast baths: submerge your affected lower leg up to the knee in ice water for one minute, then follow with immersion in hot water for one minute. Repeat the cycle for 20 minutes total.
2. Cross train! Use the stationary bike, elliptical machine, rower or swimming pool (anything that reduces the impact of ground forces on the lower leg) in place of your usual running/sprint-centric workout at least once per week. Work at the same level of cardiovascular intensity and you will not lose one scrap of your hard-won fitness gains.
3. Stretch! If the pain is on the INSIDE of your lower leg, stretch your Achilles Tendon. If the pain is on the FRONT of your lower leg, stretch both your Achilles Tendon and your calf muscles. The stretches are similar, and easy to do anywhere. Simply face a wall or other sturdy object (like a counter top). Lean forward slightly from the hips, with hands at waist or shoulder height for support. Place one leg behind you, hip distance apart from the leg in the front. Keeping the knee straight, press the heel of the foot on the back leg into the floor until you feel a vigorous stretch in the back of the lower leg (just above the heel). The muscle being stretched is your gastrocnemius, or large calf muscle. To focus the stretch on the Achilles Tendon, simply BEND the knee of the leg in the back position. You may drop your hips down and forward to deepen the stretch. Hold each stretch for about 30 seconds. Repeat twice.
4. 'Pre-habilitate!' Developing good strength in your shin muscles and the muscles of your feet and toes will go a long way toward warding off future bouts of The Splints. Here are a couple of good ones to try:
a. While sitting with feet flat, trace the alphabet on the floor with your toes. You can also try picking up marbles or a towel using your toes. Try 2-3 rounds of 60 seconds each.
b. Walk on your heels (with toes pointed up towards your shins) for 30 seconds. Rest for one minute, then repeat. Do 2-3 cycles of heel walking.
You can also ask your Dr. Blake about taping the lower leg, if you simply must continue to run. A good taping job will help hold the tendons of the muscles of your shins against the shin bone itself to prevent additional stress on the area.
Remember, increasing your mileage slowly (no more than 10% per week), actively cross-training and avoiding excessively hard running and playing surfaces will go far in preventing future episodes of shin splints. Because no one likes to be sidelined from their favorite sport!
Lisa Tonra, a twenty-year veteran of the fitness/wellness business, holds credentials from ACSM, NASM, and BASI Pilates and is currently a Physical Therapy graduate student. She specializes in injury 'pre-habilitation,' prevention and recovery for all sports-related and overuse conditions. Lisa can also design, implement, coach and monitor fitness routines for all recreational athletes, fitness enthusiasts and beginning exercisers. Her philosophy is a simple one: "There is a (sometimes hidden) fitness enthusiast in all of us! It’s good to set a short-term fitness, health or lifestyle goal to get yourself up and moving, but challenge yourself to take the longer view of 'training for life.' What are Your Body Goals? I can help you achieve and maintain them, and do it injury-free!"
Visit Lisa's personal website here: http://yourbodygoals.com