Holy Shin, that hurts

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My long term battle with my calves

I am not bragging when I say I have the calves of a Springbok prop. They are neither particularly feminine nor exactly suited to long distance running.  (I inherited my dad’s legs. And while I may have untapped scrumming potential, I’m unlikely to pursue that in this lifetime!)

Really, these calves are more of a curse than a blessing. And yes, I’m talking about shin splints. It’s an injury that plagues many runners, especially those who are new to the sport and looking to build up their mileage.


What are shin splints?

Shin splints are essentially an inflammatory reaction in the membrane (periosteum) lining your shin bone.  The most significant precipitating factor is tight and inflexible calf muscles. The tight muscle pulls abnormally hard on its attachment to the shin, which results in inflammation in the membrane that covers the bone. Prolonged traction and irritation at this spot can even progress to stress fractures of the tibia (shin bone) itself.

My shins give me ongoing grief. In the past I have had to work hard to release the tight tissue along my shins, stretch my calves and often ran with a little strip of rigid tape to offload some of the tension from my shin where I can feel the irritation.

 What’s causing it?

When battling constantly tight calves it’s important to establish why those muscles keep tightening up:

- it could hint at weakness higher up the chain (like in the glut),

- it could be a result of neural tension, 

- it could be a symptom of trying to increase your mileage too quickly,

- or it could be linked to either footwear or foot placement (if you are a pronator) etc.


Top tips for settling an acute flare up

-      ice along the shins after a run if they are feeling irritated

-      use some oil to gently rub lumpy spots along your shin

-      stretch both calf muscles. (People are good at stretching the Gastrocs muscle (as you would with a straight leg out behind you) but often forget to stretch the soleus (long, flat calf muscle lower down towards the Achilles which  can only be done with a bent knee.)

-      run with a little strip of rigid tape pulling the calf forward slightly at the point you feel too much tension on the shin


I may be biased but I also feel it’s worth seeing a physio to work out why your calves keep getting tight and address that issue. The difference between treating the cause and not the symptoms should help you to get on top of this injury in the long term. For example, a weak glut could be the cause. Specific glut strengthening, to ensure that your bum is driving the movement in your leg, and that you arent recruiting calf muscles in compensation, could resolve the problem. 

 Compartment syndrome

I ran for a long time with very underactive and weak glutes which caused the muscles in my lower leg to hypertrophy (grow excessively quickly) to the point where I used to suffer compartment syndrome. This is a condition where the muscle essential builds bulk quicker than the inflexible connective tissue around it (fascia) can stretch to accommodate. As a result the pressure goes up in that compartment which starts to compress nerves and blood vessels. A compartment syndrome can be accompanied by symptoms including pins and needles, swelling and pallor for this reason.


 Prevention better than cure

I signed up with run project a little while ago and under the guidance of their great coaches added a lot of mobility and strength work into my running program. It without question has helped me to become a better runner more resistant to injury and for a long time I haven’t had to strap or do soft tissue work in order to run pain free. Cross training in the form of strength work, mobility drills (not passive stretching) and proprioceptive work is so important in injury prevention in runners.

Unfortunately a little while ago I hurt my lower calf muscle doing some strength work. In trying not to actively treat it and push through with strength work I am now sitting with inflamed and irritated plantar fascia as well. Shortened, inflexible calf muscles attach onto your heel through your Achilles tendon and can in turn put pressure into the whole system including the connective tissue or “plantar fascia” in the arch of your foot. I’m busy working out the best way to get on top of this and I’ll hopefully have a successful strategy to share here soon!

 Who else battles with their shins and what strategies have you employed to help manage them? I would love to hear from you.

With love,

Mama on the Run