Running is arguably the quickest, easiest and most effective form of fitness activity. We all know how to do it; after walking, it’s the first thing we learned. In addition, it’s convenient. Just tie on a pair of running shoes and head out the door.
However, like any exercise, running entails a risk of injury. Shin splints are notoriously one of the most common running maladies.
What Are Shin Splints?
Shin splints, technically known as medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS), are an inflammation which occurs in the muscles, tendons and bone tissue in the area of the tibia (shinbone). They can occur in one or both legs and are characterized by pain at the start of running, which may abate during the exercise and then worsen when you are done.
Although shin splints are common, the precise reasons for their occurrence are unknown. However, a clear feature of the injury is overuse—doing repetitive activity resulting in stress on the tibia and surrounding structure.
There’s a clear path to this injury. A common trait among runners is that in their enthusiasm, they are notorious for doing “too much, too soon”. In addition, runners pride themselves on “pushing through the pain.” However, this is NOT what you want to do with shin splints.
While rest and alternative activities can resolve the problem, it is very important not to ignore it or push through it. Not only will the pain inevitably get worse, but the condition could turn into other, more serious problems.
These include stress fractures, tendinitis or compartment syndrome. It is important to see a physician with expertise treating this injury so that these conditions and other possible causes of the pain can be ruled out. This is done by an exam and imagining such as X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.
Workout Alternatives For Shin Splints
In an effort to maintain fitness while recovering from shin splints, keep in mind not to exercise to the point of any shin pain. If this occurs, cut back and consult your doctor.
Follow this important guideline when undertaking injury recovery alternatives or any exercise:
Warm up and cool down. A five- to ten-minute warmup increases blood flow and readies the body for exercise. A similar cooldown aids recovery. Warmup and cooldown may also help prevent injury. Warmup or cooldown can consist of a mild version of the activity you are doing (such as swimming or rowing), or another form of exercise.
Deep water running (aqua jogging) most closely duplicates running done on land. This non-impact activity is an excellent cardiovascular exercise and is used by runners from beginners to Olympians. Because running against water’s resistance and using the whole body can be a lot more difficult than running on land, runners often come back from injury in better shape than before they got hurt. Online instructions and tutorials provide helpful guidelines for deep water running.
In addition, swimming (with any stroke) is also a great non-impact fitness activity. In addition, water aerobics, in a class or on your own, can keep the body fit.
Tips for water:
- Practice proper running posture and stroke mechanics.
- Experiment running with and without a flotation device or belt.
- Vary swimming strokes and aerobic activity for an all-over workout.
Whether outdoors or indoors on a stationary bike, solo or in a spin class, cycling is hugely popular and a great fitness activity. It builds muscles and provides cardiovascular fitness with the benefits of transportation outdoors and camaraderie indoors in classes.
Be aware, however, that while it is a non-impact activity, cycling can increase shin pain for those with severe pain and also be a cause of shin splints. In order to avoid this, make sure to have a properly aligned bike and that you are using a pedal technique that avoids stressing the shin muscles.
Tips for cycling:
- Practice safety tips outdoors (e.g. wearing a helmet, watching for traffic).
- Use a properly fitted bike.
- Practice a regular and recommended pedaling cadence.
Rowing is a whole-body workout which alleviates impact stress to the shins. To reduce ankle movement, you can strap your feet snugly into the device. The pulling motion of the machine can be adjusted for resistance to increase the difficulty.
Tips for rowing:
- Use correct posture.
- Learn to use the damper setting (resistance feature).
- Vary the pace and intensity.
Elliptical or Cross-Trainer
These stationary exercise machines are found in gyms and feature simulations of activities such as walking, running or stair climbing, all with almost no lower body impact.
Tips for the elliptical:
- Do not slouch; stay upright.
- Vary your routine.
- Focus on the workout (as opposed to a TV screen or reading a book).
Recovering from shin splints or other injury is a good time to gain the benefits of strength training, which if done deliberately, can also provide cardiovascular benefits. In addition, strength training is key to avoiding future shin splints and other lower body injuries by developing the supportive muscles surrounding the joints and tissues of the lower body.
Strength training can be done with body weight, free weights, weight machines or with functional accessories (such as ropes and resistance bands). Experiment to find what you like best and find most effective.
Tips for strength training:
- Seek instruction from a qualified trainer if you are new to strength training.
- Alternate working various areas of the body.
- Increase weights regularly and methodically.
Returning to Running
Finally, be patient. After several weeks, try to resume running slowly and on soft surfaces to begin. Continue only if it is pain-free and with the advice of your doctor. Be aware, however, that it can take from seven to nine weeks to fully recover from this injury.
If you experience shin pain, request an appointment with an Essex Union Podiatry specialist. We have decades of combined experience diagnosing this and other running and sports injuries, and we will provide an accurate diagnosis and future preventive measures for those suffering from shin splints.