The Whole Story on Shin Splints

Posted by Danny Dreyer on Sun Aug 14th, 2005, 6 comments


•    What are they?
•    How are they caused?
•    How do I heal my shin splints?
•    What can I do to avoid shin splints or keep them from coming back?

If I were to do a study regarding running related injuries, I'd bet money that the hottest topic would be shin splints. There are very few runners I've come across that haven't at some point in their running career had a case of shin splints varying in degree, from mild shin pain to a debilitating stress fracture of the tibia. However, although it is one of the most common injuries known to runners, it is both curable and preventable. So, if you're concerned about the health of those shins of yours, read on and find out how you can avoid having shin splints for the rest of your life.

What are shin splints?
Shin splints are sort of a catch-all phrase for a number of ailments that occur in the lower leg. The medical name for shin splints is medial tibial syndrome. In the mildest cases, shin splints are the inflammation of the fascia (connective tissue) that covers and connects the muscles of the lower to the bone (the tibia). In the worst cases, the fascia is under such stress that it actually separates from the tibia, which is very painful and can, in some cases, involve a rather slow healing process.

How are shin splints caused?
There are two main causes of shin splints. The first is  the excess of impact to the lower legs, which is primarily created by heel striking. The second main cause is overuse of the lower legs while running. Overuse injuries primarily happen when you push off with your toes to propel yourself forward.

Let's review these two issues in more detail:

Too much impact to the lower legs

If you're a heel striker, the repetitive shock of your heels hitting the ground will irritate the fascia (the connective tissue) in the muscles of your lower legs, especially your shins. When the fascia becomes irritated or inflamed you'll feel discomfort in your shins that could worsen over time if no correction is made.

Impact to the lower legs can happen in a variety of ways. Here are a few:
•    Running in old, worn-out running shoes
•    Heavy heal striking
•    Extended downhill running
•    Running on an unstable surface (like snow or ice)
•    Running on a treadmill
•    Running on a side-sloping street

To reduce the amount of shock to your legs, it is important to eliminate any heel strike while running. Heel strike happens when you run with your trunk upright and reach forward with your legs as you stride … commonly called over-striding. Chi Running offers a way to eliminate heel strike by leaning forward from your ankles as you run, thereby allowing your foot to strike underneath or even slightly behind your body. This allows you to land on your midfoot and your legs to swing to the rear as soon as your feet hit the ground, eliminating any heel strike.

Overuse of the lower legs

This is caused by pushing off with the toes, which in turn causes the calf and shin muscles to overwork. Anytime your body weight is supported by your toes, your calves and shins are required to do much more work than they were designed to do. In fact, if you're pushing off with your toes, you're actually increasing the workload to your calves and shins to be more than your body weight because you're pushing up against the downward pull of gravity. That's simply too big of a job for that relatively small group of lower leg muscles to handle. They'll get overworked and will eventually begin to complain in the form of soreness, inflammation and in some cases, become separated from the bone (the most painful version of shin splints).

Here are some other ways the lower legs can be overused. Beginning runners who are starting up a running program will often run too far or too fast before their legs are ready to sustain the distance or the speed they're running. Add to this the fact that almost all beginning runners push off with their toes, which increases the stress to their unconditioned legs, especially the shins. Many runners also start their runs too fast and don't allow their muscles to warm up enough before increasing their speed. Shin splints are also most likely to occur during track workouts involving speed intervals, and hill runs … both of which increase the amount of push-off with the toes.

Compared to your quadraceps, hamstrings and core muscles, the muscles in your shins (tibialis anterior) are relatively small and can become easily over-worked. The best solution to the overuse of the lower leg muscles is not to use them. With the Chi Running technique, you engage the pull of gravity by leaning slightly forward, allowing your lower legs to relax while you run. By falling forward with the pull of gravity, there is really no need to be pushing yourself with your legs. All you really need to do is pick up your feet to keep up with your forward fall, which requires no lower leg muscles.

Try this: Stand in place and alternately pick your feet up off the ground. You'll see that it takes no lower leg muscles to pick up your feet. In fact you can let your legs just dangle from your knees while you're picking up your feet. See? No shin or calf muscles required. If you can do this while your standing, you can easily do the same thing while your walking and eventually learn to do it while running. This is one of the basic principles of the Chi Running technique … to run without using your lower legs for anything but momentary support between strides.

How do I heal my shin splints?
Doctors recommend that you rest your legs in order to your overworked shins muscles to heal. They suggest switching to swimming or some other form of exercise that doesn't require your lower legs.  Another common remedy is to ice the shins for 15 minutes three to four times a day to reduce inflammation. Periodically elevating your legs can help some too. With diligence,  these techniques can help to heal your shin splints. But, in the big picture, they really only provide temporary relief of the symptoms, because they don't really get rid of the cause of the problem … which is either overuse or impact to the lower legs. 

How to I prevent shin splints?
The pain of your shin splints might go away with rest, but as soon as you get back on your feet running again, you might notice the same old problem coming back to haunt you. If this is the case, you have a couple of options from which to choose. Most doctors will tell you that one option is to gradually strengthen the muscles in your lower legs by doing such things as running slowly, doing calf raises or walking on your heels. This will sometimes work, but is not necessarily a guaranteed way to permanently rid yourself of shin splints. Remember, it is not your shins that create shin splints. It's the way you run.

Chi Running offers a second alternative and a permanent cure for shin splints by teaching you how to run using your lower legs much less, if at all. By reducing or eliminating the use of your lower legs while running, you can greatly reduce your odds of getting shin splints.

Since gravity is your main source of forward propulsion, in Chi Running, you are left with only the job of picking up your feet with each stride to keep up with your forward fall. This takes almost all of the work off the lower legs because they are only needed for momentary support between strides, not for propulsion. This solves the problem of overuse.

As your body falls forward, your foot strike lands slightly behind your center of gravity allowing your leg to swing rearward as your foot hits the ground. This eliminates heel strike which, as I previously mentioned, is a major cause of shin splints and happens to be the cause of most knee injuries.  This solves the problem of too much impact to the legs.

With practice, you can learn to run without ever overworking your lower legs … and put the threat of shin splints out of your mind and body forever. Think of your lower legs this way: If you don't use them, you can't abuse them. Keep them relaxed whenever you're running or walking, and your running future will look a lot rosier.



Resources to help you master the Chi Running basics:

6 CommentsLeave a comment below

Kate Orawee Jul 1st, 2013 08:18pm

Dear Danny,
I’ve been dealing with shin splints couple months. I’ve tried to change my running shoes, running surfaces, stretch and rest. But it seems like it is only a temporary release. When I get back to running, it occurs again.
I would like to know where can I find Chi running instructor in Singapore.
Gratefully, Kate

Kate,
Sorry that you have been having troubles. Improving your technique with ChiRunning will help you get rid of those shin splints for good. We have 3 instructors in Singapore. Here is the link to contact them: http://www.chirunning.com/learn-it/find-an-instructor/

Dear Danny,

I have had shin splints since early April, ran the London marathon with them.  While they only hurt a little when resting, they are still painful to run.  Would like to try Chi running but presumably I have to wait till the shin splints heal which could be more than a year?
I have always ran on my forefoot/mid foot using Newton gravities.  I think what did for me was Newtons making their shoes narrower this year.  I bought a pair of the 2013 version in March and my problems seemed to start then.
How far healed do I have to be before I can give Ch running a go?

Regards

Robert

Jeff Carnivale Aug 6th, 2013 01:44pm

Robert,

We always suggest when you are suffering the acute phase of an injury to stay off of it. Here’s the thing though, so many of the concepts and techniques of ChiRunning can be practiced outside your actual running. Get a head start by reading the book and getting your posture correct, feel lighter in your walking stride, then when you get the go-ahead to run you will already have some of this body-sensing and new muscle memory working for you.

Danny,

I have been suffering from chronic shin splints for over two years now. I was doing around twenty to thirty miles a week before that. Since then its been the same story, take time off, feel better, run a few weeks, then the splints come right back. That’s been the same routine for two years now. I’ve tried everything from barefoot running to orthotics and physical therapy, and its always the same outcome. I’ve got your book and I’m slowly reading through it to really absorb it. I guess what I want to know is, are there ever times when your technique, when done correctly, actually hasn’t been able to over come shin splints?

Am in Uganda, where can i get Chi Running DVD?

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