Preventing Shin Splints

Dear F&F: I started running in 2010 and quickly discovered that my weak arches are what caused the leg pain I experienced, the knee pain (kneecap slides) and the bursitis that formed just below my knee.  But, I’ve worked on taping the knees and strengthening the muscle there.

While training lately for a half marathon, I often get shin splints along the inside of my calf as well as up the front.  I know I have to rest it, then strengthen that front muscle. What are good exercises to work that muscle?  Amy, @splintergirl

Picture of shin splints

All that red looks like a giant, painful splinter!

Alexandra: Hey Amy, we are almost BFFs now, because you are so good about sending us questions (we just answered one from Amy about half marathons). We moved your question up the queue since we know your race is pretty soon. First of all, you have to be pain free before you can do strengthening exercises. Freeze water in a Dixie cup. Before and after your runs, ice down your shins, peeling away the cup as the ice melts.

Kymberly: Not to shirk my duty here, but my advice is to check with your medical professional. I always advocate solving the root of the problem, which are weak arches, in your case. Why are they weak? What is causing their collapse? All the issues you describe emanate from the arch collapse, so until you address the biomechanical or anatomical issues there, you will always be playing catch up with your injuries. I feel like the grinch of running, but there it is. Think of it this way — you have an issue at the bottom of your body — the arches. You feel a problem higher up the body — the shins, and not surprisingly the pain travels higher, reaching your knees. Next up the chain– back pain. Do you see where I am going with this? Up and up unless you go back down, all the way down to the arches. Solve that issue and the others get solved as well.

Nevertheless, we can and do offer you some ideas for strengthening your shin area as you work to resolve the original problem of collapsed arches. Does that get me out of grinch status to ultimate “gifter?”

A: Another thing – get an insole insert to go under your arch. Shin splints occur with over pronation or overuse, and inflammation occurs due to the injury at the posterior peroneal tendon and anterior portion of the lower leg. So you need to keep the arch up to prevent overuse of those muscles that lift your foot. And break in the inserts in before your race.

K: Surprise, surprise, but Alexandra and I don’t always agree. For instance, I am not a big fan of inserts. At most, use them temporarily or the muscles that are designed to lift your arch will atrophy even more. Will inserts help get you through this race more safely and with less pain? Probably. The long term solution is to strengthen the tibialis posterior, tibialis anterior, and the foot musculature.

Try barefoot sand walking (I was about to say “beach walking” but not everyone is as lucky as a ducky to live near a beach). Also do heel raises, standing barefoot and lifting in an almost pigeon-toed direction with the toes straight ahead and the ankles thrusting outwards as you rise up. (You can see the move in this short video from “not us”). This exercise will specifically help the posterior tibialis and cut down on the pain you are describing.

Lastly, maybe change your twitter handle from “splintergirl” to something that avoids the word “splints” and does not sound so painful. Yowzah!

Picture credit: Mayo Clinic

Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA and Alexandra Williams, MA


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