How to Quickly Treat and Prevent Shin Splints for Distance Runners
“Shin Splints” is a bit of a catch-all term that can refer to Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome (MTSS) and other front of the leg pains. Shin splints can come in many shapes and forms, but often the causes for this pain in the lower leg are similar. In most cases, runners can apply a few simple fixes to get rid of shin pain and prevent it from ever coming back. The most important thing to know is that *most* cases of shin splints in distance runners are related to a dorsiflexed (toes-up) landing or over-striding.
Shin Splint Causes:
There are many potential causes of Shin Splints in distance runners. Here are a few to look at.
- Overstriding/Excessive Heel Striking (“Checkmark” landing causes a greatly enhanced impact quotient)
- Dorsiflexed landing (Toes up, heel down position causes excess shin muscle strain)
- Too tight of laces over the top of the foot
- Too tight of shoes
- Overtraining or Erratic Training (As always!)
- Weak foot and lower leg muscles (very common among most runners that wear typical modern footwear)
Shin Splint Solutions:
1) Avoid a toes-up, “checkmark” landing (landing with a heel strike out in front of the body).
This is easily and quickly mastered by using a FloatRun Harness. Because the FloatRun harness effectively eliminates over-striding in its tracks, it is highly effectiving in taking pressure off the shin area.
Landing with the foot more parallel to the ground underneath a bent knee helps reduces initial impact up to 3-5 times. Landing this way also prevents the toes from being being pointed upward when landing, which keeps the shin muscles from being strained and becoming tight.
A few technique points are worth emphasizing when it comes to shin splints:
- Cadence: Increasing leg turnover will lead to decreased initial impact with the ground and reduced ground contact times. Simply increasing a runner’s cadence by 15-20 steps per minute (3-4 steps per leg every 20 seconds) can improve a runner’s landing angle enough to help alleviate shin pain. 165 to 180 steps per minute (simply count 28-30 steps on one leg in 20 seconds) is widely considered the ultimate goal, but measurably increasing your cadence 15-20 steps per minute from where it is should give considerable improvement. Most people see immediate improvement when running with a FloatRun Harness.
- Landing Angle/Foot Strike: Simply allowing the foot to land closer to the body in a more parallel position to the ground (rather than a toes up landing) generally works wonders for distance runners suffering from shin pain. This bent knee landing pulls the impact off of the shins and joints and places it on the big muscles of the leg. To feel the difference in shin tightness between landing with a heavy heel strike (toes up landing) and a more level landing, simply sit down, place your hands on your shins, and pull your toes up towards your face. Feel how tight the shins are. Now allow the foot to sit flat on the ground underneath your knee and notice how loose the shins are. Landing in a position similar to this can work wonders for shin pain!
- Arms: A simple arm trick to help the foot land more level underneath a bent knee is to focus on keeping the elbows back and not allow the elbows to cross forward in front of the hips. Arms should be relaxed and pump back to drive momentum, but should never cross forward pass the hips, unless the runner is running very fast.
- Posture: Keeping good posture can also improve landing angle and keep pressure off of the shins. Keeping the back straight and never bending at the waist is key. While running, running “proud” with the chest and hips forward while keeping the back straight will make it very easy to run with less impact on the shins and more efficiency overall.
- Note: Using a FloatRun Harness will help improve cadence, landing angle, arms, and posture as soon as you start using it and will make it second nature in 6-12 weeks.
2) Loosen the laces over the top of the foot.
The muscles on top of the foot are connected with the muscles on the front of the leg. Because of this, having tight laces on a shoe can actually cause the entire lower leg to tense up. Keeping the laces loose enough over the top of the foot to slip a finger under can help relax the shin muscles.
3) Shoe Fit
Most running shoes are built to have about 15-18mm (2/3 to 3/4 inch) between the toes and the end of the shoe. Fitting this way so that the foot and toes feel very loose will help relax the foot muscles that are connected to the shins.
4) Run More Often
Research suggests that shin splints are far more prominent in those who run only a couple times a week vs. those who run nearly every day. Spreading the training load out more evenly by running more often can be very effective in reducing shin pain. Increasing training frequency while decreasing intensity is generally very helpful in recovery. See Page 8 Here
5) Be careful with downhill and speed
It is recommended to be careful in steep downhill training or speed training. Both of these place excess forces on the lower leg muscles and can irritate tender lower leg muscles. It is very important to emphasize keeping the elbows back (like the FloatRun Harness promotes) and to feel like you are keeping strides short, as most people have a tendency to "reach" with downhill and speed.
Many people believe compression can be helpful in reducing the excess muscle vibrations caused upon landing that may contribute to shin pain. Since shin pain is often caused by shin muscles tearing away from the bone, compression can help hold things in place and reduce the impact vibrations that can cause this. It is recommended to use compression sleeves or socks that provide graduated compression as this will be more effective in increasing blood flow, lymph return, and reducing muscle vibrations.
7) Soft, Flexible Support
For short-term relief, it may be helpful to add some support in the form of an inexpensive soft and flexible insert like Bridge Soles. These insoles not only have a deep heel cup and a soft arch, but they have a full metatarsal pad which could be helpful for those suffering from shin splints. These will also help negate some of the effects of toe spring in your shoes and help the toes not point up towards the shins as much.
With that said, while any change in a runner’s routine will often end up in immediate changes for better or worse, it is highly unlikely that increasing the amount of cushioning in a shoe or using orthotics will create a long-term solution to shin pain. This is because the body has built in impact sensing behavior—if the body senses it will be landing on something soft—it will simply land harder and vice versa. Also, while an orthotic or insert may be necessary at first, and provide some correction and short-term relief due to the change, it is likely that any firm or custom style insole or orthotic will provide support which will eventually make the foot and lower leg muscles weaker. Typically, having weaker muscles from wearing an insert will result in becoming dependent on the insert and have very undesirable long-term effects.
7) Foot and lower leg strengthening
Strengthening the muscles of the foot and lower leg can be very helpful in preventing long-term shin pain.
The most targeted way to do this can be easily accomplished by running barefoot on a natural surface such as grass. Start with only 30 seconds of barefoot running and add an additional 30 seconds to your routine once or twice a week. This will also help reinforce and teach proper running technique. Slowly add 30 seconds at a time until you can do 20 minutes comfortably.
The most important exercise you can do is balancing on one foot with the heel 1/2" to 1" off the ground. Work your way up to being able to hold this for 90 seconds, and try doing it with eyes closed along the way. Foot and lower leg strength can be made more effective with a pair of Correct Toes. Wearing Correct Toes regularly can be a shin splint killer in and of themselves!
Additionally, recent research has shown that simply wearing barefoot style shoes (like Splay, Lems, Vivobarefoot, XeroShoes, etc.) the majority of the day was similar in effectiveness as a full foot-strengthening regimen.
We recommend following accounts like Gait Happens and My Foot Function for exercises and other ideas for strengthening your feet.
8) Cushioned Zero Drop shoes with a Foot-shaped toe box may help
-Cushioned Zero Drop (flat, no elevated heel) shoes such as Altra can help a runner to land more underneath their knees, displacing the initial impact transient often associated with shin pain. Zero Drop shoes also help to reduce cadence, muscle contraction time, and firing of the muscles on the front of the leg. Reducing these things can have a very positive effect on shin pain. In addition, due to not having excess height or weight in the heel, cushioned Zero Drop shoes allow the foot to stay more parallel to the ground and avoid the dorsiflexed (toes up) landing position that leads to tight shin muscles. (Disclaimer: Running with a checkmark landing in a Zero Drop shoe may result in increased shin tightness)
-Shoes with a foot-shaped design allow for much better toe spread and relaxation than traditional footwear. In addition, the design helps alleviate pressure on top of the foot that can lead to tight muscles in the shin area.
This article has given you the science and tools to attack your shin pain from all angles. Initially, for immediate results, we would recommend:
- Get a pair of Bridge Soles to relax the foot and shin area on landing, and loosen your shoe laces enough over the top of your foot so that you can easily slide a finger under your laces.
- Temporarily avoid speed and downhill and use a FloatRun Harness to help you land in a way that takes pressure off your shin area. Spread your mileage out by running more often.
From there, work on strengthening your feet and lower legs, and experimenting with shoes with more toe room and/or more natural features. Do these things and it is highly unlikely you will ever experience shin pain again. Good luck!