Have you ever tried to start running regularly, only to be stopped by sharp stabbing pain in your shins? Every step can feel like shards of glass breaking into your soft tissue, or maybe you feel like your bones are about to break. If you’ve experienced what I’m talking about then you know how frustratingly painful shin splints are.
You don’t have to suffer through shin splints in order to become (or stay) a runner.
A lot of you know about the knee pain that stopped me from running for 8 years and hiking for 6, but it actually started with shin splints.
I was 16, had stopped doing gymnastics and took up running. I loved the freedom and strength I felt during and after a nice long run. Pretty soon after I started running regularly I experienced that stabbing pain in my shins. Being stubborn and someone with a high pain tolerance, I just kept running. Eventually the shin splints went away; but I ended up with horrific knee pain a year later. This new pain was something I couldn’t ignore. Sharp stabbing pain literally brought me to my knees, and there was no way to run through that.
I now know these two things were connected, and had I taken care of the shin splints like I’m about to show you how – I never would have experienced such debilitating knee pain and I could have kept running and hiking all those years.
What are shin splints?
Medically speaking, shin splints (or medial tibial stress syndrome) is considered an overuse issue specifically from running and often from running on hard surfaces like pavement.
They tell us you’re at risk if:
- you’re a runner or just beginning a running program
- you change the duration, length or frequency of your running
- you’re in the military
- have high or flat arches
Then there’s a laundry list of ways to “manage” the pain, such as:
- have your running gait analyzed
- buy shoes with more support/cushion
- try inserts with shock absorption
- lessen the impact of your activities by adding things like swimming and biking and
- do more strength training…
But NONE of the above address the actual CAUSE of shin splints.
Besides, if you love running and you just wanna be out there pounding pavement or miles of dirt…you don’t want to hear things like “try swimming instead.” Right?
I’m here to tell you, you can run to your heart’s content SO LONG AS you address the CAUSE of your shin splints. And – it’s fairly EASY once you “get” it.
So what causes shin splints?
Fascia, or connective tissue, that has lost its SPRING. Specifically, the fascia in your lower legs (though healthy fascia throughout your entire body is important for maintaining that feeling of spaciousness and freedom while running!)
Your fascial system is part of something called the extracellular matrix, and this ECM is responsible for distributing mechanical stress throughout your body so no single area or tissue has to absorb and feel it.
What allows the fascia to do this in large part is due to something called ground substance – a gel like substance that contains the “food” every one of our cells needs to live. If you want to learn more about this you can watch another episode specifically about the ECM and fascial spring by clicking here or here.
When it comes to shin splints, what I want you to imagine is a balloon with a rock in the center of it…that rock is your tibia bone, and the surrounding space is your muscle and fascia.
If you fill that surrounding space with gelatin, you could throw that rock on the ground without worrying about it shattering. Take away the gel and replace it with string and straws – what your muscles and fascial network look and feel like when they become dehydrated and brittle and lack that gel like ground substance! – and then try throwing that balloon on the floor. The rock will start to feel the impact, and may eventually develop cracks and fissures, aka a stress fracture.
Your brain tries to warn you before this happens with the pain associated with shin splints; not to mention the impact itself isn’t going to be ok with your body long term without the presence of ground substance and healthy fascia that can distribute mechanical stress.
Not only will you feel this in your shins, but chances are you’ll have foot pain or develop plantar fasciitis, or maybe like me you’ll develop knee pain. You could also end up experiencing chronic calf cramps or restless leg syndrome.
These things are ALL connected.
When fascia is healthy and full of ground substance it acts like our shock absorber and we can do ALL kinds of activities that many of us think about as “bad for our joints” like running, hiking down steep mountains or sports that require a lot of running and/or jumping combined, such as basketball, baseball, football, dance, parkour, gymnastics etc.
When fascia is unhealthy (brittle, dehydrated and/or stuck in adhesions), it can no longer distribute mechanical stress throughout the entire system (your whole body) and every step is felt all the way to your bone, and can absolutely cause micro tears and even bone fractures!
To be clear: “pounding” exercises like running and jumping aren’t inherently “bad;” running and jumping with fascia that is unhealthy can, and often does, lead to pain and injury.
With healthy fascia, we can run and pound pavement and jump as much as we want.
How to eliminate shin splints:
The fascia within your entire calf compartment needs to be released. This includes your calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus), tibialis anterior (shin muscle) and peroneals (also in the shin region and lateral or outside the calf) and Achilles.
I made a video a couple years ago that has helped hundreds of thousands of people and it is the #1 fastest way to release the fascia in your entire lower leg compartment. I call it “The ONE Stretch” because it targets so many things at once (muscles and pain issues). If you haven’t already tried The ONE Stretch, click here.
A lot of people have written me asking for alternatives to this technique, so if you can’t get into this position, if it’s just too intense or you want to work on one area at a time rather than all at once, you can try the alternative calf release technique by clicking here.
First, go after your calf fascia.
Make sure you release your ENTIRE calf, from below the knee all the way down into your Achilles.
If you’re using The ONE Stretch, you’ll also be targeting your tibialis anterior and peroneals with that one.
If you’re using the calf release alternative, you’ll want to add my technique for releasing your tibialis anterior and peronals. Access that post and video by clicking here.
For the best possible result, you would also want to make sure your plantar fascia hasn’t lost its spring, since it is the first thing to contact the ground upon impact.
Learn how to release your plantar fascia using a lacrosse ball by clicking here.
And finally, I would say that the healthier your ENTIRE body’s fascia is, the better it will be at distributing mechanical stress. So, as your schedule and commitment allows, do as much fascial release as you can and do it until there’s little to NO sensation (the sign of healthy fascia), and you will not only be running pain free – you’ll feel lighter and springier, you’ll PREVENT a lot of potential pain and injuries AND – you just might shave some time off your miles because healthy fascia means far more efficient and powerful movement.
So there you have it – what causes shin splints and how to disappear them and get back to running.
I’d love to hear from you!
What’s one thing you learned or took away from this video, and more importantly: how will you put it to work for YOU so you can live an unstoppable life?
If you know someone struggling with shin splints right now, pass this along.