Shin splints are generally referred to as a dull pain felt along the shin bone. This pain is a direct result of repeated foot contacts with the ground. To be more specific, when a runner continually makes heel-first contact far in front of his/her center of gravity, this creates a braking force. The transferred energy that had previously propelled the runner forward is now transferred to his/her heel. This energy is made up of the runner’s bodyweight, the force of gravity, and the momentum the runner has created. Studies have shown anywhere from 3-4 times the bodyweight of the individual is transferred into the heel of the landing leg. This energy transfer puts a lot of stress on the muscles and connective tissue along the front of the shin, as they act to pull the foot toward the shin, an action called dorsiflexion.
To put things into perspective, imagine standing on the edge of a curb on just your heels. Now, remove one leg so you are standing on the curb with one leg. Then, add 3-4 times your bodyweight on your back, and try to raise your foot toward your shin...repeatedly. This is a simulation of what “conventional” running does to your shins.
Unfortunately, the energy doesn’t just transfer to the muscles on the front of the shin. This energy travels up the shin to the knee, then the hip, then the spine. This opens the runner up to many other types of problems that follow this path, referred to as the kinetic chain. Tightness, muscle imbalances, poor joint mobility, and bad posture can all be causes of injuries along this kinetic chain, which can be made worse by improper running technique.
So, how do you fix this? Well, many common treatments include stretches, icing of the area, specific exercises, yoga poses, etc. These types of treatments simply put a band-aid on the issue, and don’t correct the root cause, as the shin splints are caused by running heel to toe. This type of intervention can help if the individual is unwilling to change his/her running mechanics.
In my experience, one of the best things any runner can do is start off by running barefoot in the grass for a few minutes. Almost without exception, the transfer from shoes to bare feet causes the person to begin making contact on the midfoot instead of the heel. This can cause a world of difference as now the muscles, bones/joints, and connective tissue of the foot and ankle are being used to absorb the impact instead of it being transferred to the heel.
The next step is to transfer this type of running back into shoe running. Most often, this is a deliberate effort, as running with shoes will cause the runner to revert back to his/her heel-striking. The transfer to a midfoot strike is helped by a slight forward lean. This lean moves the runner’s center of gravity forward, making midfoot strikes much easier and allowing them to be made under the runner’s center of gravity.
This type of running has more benefits than just preventing shin splints. From a biomechanical standpoint, making ground contact directly under the center of gravity no longer causes a braking force to the runner. This allows the runner’s energy to be used for propulsion, allowing for more economical running mechanics. Bottom line, this will help cure your shin pain, and may help you run further.
Ryne Gioviano, M.S.Ed., NSCA-CPT
Owner of Welligee Personal Training & Lifestyle