This is one running & rucking related injury that keeps popping up on my radar thanks to people writing me and asking how to prevent/deal with this annoying injury.
If you’re lucky enough to be unfamiliar with shin splints then here is a quick primer:
Shin splints is basically a catch-all term for “The muscles around my shin and lower leg hurt!”
But it is basically lower leg pain, in the muscles and tissue surrounding your shin bone, caused by weak and/or overstressed tissues and mobility problems. The pain is typically worse after running, rucking, and waking up (as the tissues tend to shorten and get tighter overnight).
In nerdy terms, you’re looking at pain and inflammation in the anterior tibialis, posterior tibialis, and interosseous membrane between the bones of the lower leg and muscles of the lower leg.
When any / all of these tissues get inflamed you may end up with pain and general discomfort.
A quick side note
I’m not a doctor. If you have some sort of pain or injury — Go find competent medical care.
Also, not all lower leg pain = shin splints and you could be having other problems such as a stress fracture (an incomplete break in a bone), actual fracture (shits broke), or even compartment syndrome (swelling of muscles within a closed compartment creating pressure.
One quick way to screen yourself for shin splints is to dorsiflex your foot (Pull you toes up towards the sky), if you feel pain or your “shin muscles” light up, it’s probably shin splints.
Ok, disclaimer out of the way…
The 2 Primary Causes of Shin Splints
So shin splints, why and how do you get them?
If you’ve been reading my stuff or have heard me lecture or coach then you know that I’m kind of a movement nazi. As in, I don’t let people get away with shitty technique OR let them get away with basic fundamental movement flaws that manifest in their everyday life (i.e. overextended lumbar, standing with the weight shifted to one side (ladies…), etc).
So when someone comes to me with a problem, like shin splints, the first thing I’ll do is observe how they stand and walk.
If you default foot position looks like this:
Then chances are we’ve already found one of the primary causes of your shin splints.
So cause Number 1 = Mobility Problems!
Specifically, if you walk/stand like a duck then you’re probably noticing pain in the posterior tibialis which is getting beat up every time your foot hits the ground and your ankle and arch collapses (This movement pattern is probably causing a whole bunch of other issues as well). This medial ankle and knee displacement puts a TON of stress on the tibialis posterior and is likely the root cause of your shin splints.
Which is great to know because this is a whole different level of fixing your problem then you get with most doctors and therapists whose general advice sounds something like: “Oh, just rest and ice it and then ramp back up slowly.”
Sure, resting will help alleviate the symptoms (pain) but ultimately what you’re dealing with is a fundamental movement dysfunction — And you need to fix that or the pain is just going to come back.
So why is that arch and ankle collapsing?
First, chances are you have super tight anterior hips and quads from sitting all day long. When your quads get tight, the vastus medialis specifically, and you load the system (i.e. land from a jump, land on one foot while running, etc) your leg may be pulled into internal rotation (knee moving towards your midline instead of tracking over your toes) which puts a ton of stress on all of the muscles and tissues of the lower leg that are trying to support and stabilize.
This medial displacement will allow the ankle to collapse inwards, the arch to flatten, and puts a tremendous amount of stress on the posterior tibialis (as I mentioned above).
This is all being caused by two things:
1.) Tight quads and hip flexors
2.) Under-active and weak hip rotators (Your butt is weak / do you even squat bro?)
The fix for this is pretty simple…
First, you need to stretch and mobilize more.
Specifically, you should focus on improving the mobility and range of motion of your anterior hip and quads. You need to undo all of the damage (tightness) that you have from sitting in a flexed position. I recommend foam rolling, LAX ball mashing, and stretching.
If you need an idea of where to start, do this “couch series” every day for two weeks and let me know if your life hasn’t changed. Once you make it a habit to knock out some basic hip mobility every day, you may want to check out the awesome program the guys over at ROMWOD have going on, makes daily mobility work dead simple.
Self-myofascial release is super important as well and I’m guessing you all don’t have a massage budget to pay someone to do it for you so… Get yourself a couple of lacrosse balls or something fancier and make sure you are rolling and mashing all those tissues surrounding your lower leg (feet, ankle, calf, knee (area), quads, etc.
For a great into on how to do this properly, check out this play list from Jill Miller, who is a rolling ninja.
Second, you’ve gotta get stronger
When your glutes are weak you lose the ability to stabilize the entire leg. This is a problem I’ve seen in THOUSANDS of people and something you can fix with a basic barbell squat. Add in a bit of progressive overload and you’ll see a world of difference.
It would also be smart to make sure you are adding in some solid unilateral lower body work as well which is why I’m a huge fan of both lunges and step ups (loaded and unloaded).
When you combine weak glutes with super tight hips & quads you are basically asking for some preventable injury to pop up (Which is why like 80% of ‘runners’ end up injured each year). Only you can prevent your friends from skipping leg day…
If you need a solid barbell only strength & conditioning program I highly recommend you check out my buddy Jerred’s One Man One Barbell program.
If you just want to add a crap ton of weight to your current back squat then my Strategic Squat Program is for you!
The second major cause of shin splints – Heel striking
Once again, I come back to harping on you about your mechanics and movement but if you heel strike while running (and even walking with a large load) then you aren’t doing yourself any favors.
When you heel strike (with your toes being pulled up to the sky – dorsiflexion) you are putting a giant load into your anterior tibialis (gross) which is going to cause excessive damage to those tissues and may eventually lead to shin splints.
As some of us know, eccentric movements (i.e. lowering yourself from the top of a pull-up) can cause significantly more damage to your muscle than the concentric motion (i.e. Pulling your head over the bar from a dead hang).
Well, every time you land on your heel when running you are putting a force that can be upwards of 3x your body weight, eccentrically, into your anterior tibialis and the other muscles of your lower leg.
This massive eccentric deceleration will quickly cause those tissues to become inflamed, irritated, and damaged. Which is a direct cause of those shin splints.
Learn how to run.
Seriously, the lack of focus on running mechanics is probably the main cause of injury in the runner population. You can do it wrong.
I cover this in detail in my totally Free Endurance Mini-Course
Additionally, you are going to want to make sure your ankle and foot is relaxed when you run. When that foot is off the ground it should hang free and you should do you best to not actively dorsiflex the ankle, which is a major cause of problems for a lot of people.
Next, we’re going to talk about mobility again…
I want you to work on improving your ankle range of motion which is going to require you to stretch your calves, mash your calves, ankles, and feet, which should help improve you dorsiflexion ROM quite a bit if you stick to a consistent routine.
I’d also recommend you work on your plantar flexion by sitting back on your heels with your toes pointed behind you.
Wrapping it up
Shin splints are a pretty common injury with military folks as well as seasoned endurance athletes but hopefully, the information above has shown you that they are entirely preventable and you aren’t doomed to have them forever.
Additionally, I’m hoping that this post also addresses the too common emails I get that sound like this: “I have to run in boots all the time and boots give me shin splints, what should I do”. Hopefully, it’s now clear that boots aren’t the cause, but may only be enhancing the symptoms of some sort of movement deficiency.
If you’re able to sort out your mobility problems and CONSISTENTLY work on improving your strength, mobility, and positioning then the vast majority of these issues will resolve.