This article is guest blogged by Eric Broadbent, a certified USA Track and Field Level 2 Coach, Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), holds USTFCCCA Track & Field Technical Certification, and a USA Weightlifting Sport Performance Coach.
How to Avoid Shin Splints
How many times have we heard our athletes complain about shin splints? It can happen at any point in the year really. Sometimes an athlete will complain late in the general prep phase or maybe not until competitions start. Once they start hurting though, everyone wants to know how they can fix them. Is there a magic pill or some secret strength exercise that I can do which will get rid of them? Nope, sorry. The cold hard truth is that the best way to “fix them” is to rest and then avoid getting them by training smart.
To start, we need to first understand what shin splints really are, or at least, usually are. Shin splints are usually inflammation of the periosteum(connective tissue covering the shin bone and connecting the muscle to the bone). This is usually felt on the medial or lateral side of the tibia. There are many different causes of shin splints and they can lead to more serious issues like stress fractures and compartment syndrome. Most of the time, the cause of shin splints is overuse or mechanical issues that need to be addressed. I want to shed some light on different ideas to consider when setting up your training program in hopes of avoiding shin splints for your athletes.
One obvious solution that may need to be considered is whether or not you are simply doing too much. Is the volume of training appropriate for your athletes? If you have a group of athletes that end up developing shin splints during the same time each year, maybe you are doing too much with them. The volume of training could be too high or the number of competitions and races within those events could be too high. I would love for them to do a study to see how many athletes are under trained vs. over trained in the high school and collegiate setting. I am sure we would see many more programs over training their athletes and it becomes a case of only the strong surviving.
Every good coach knows that each athlete they work with is unique and therefor no training plan can be replicated year after year with your training group. This is where the art of coaching comes in and it becomes all about knowing your athletes, what they can handle, and when they can handle it. Having said that, every coach has probably come across an athlete or two each year that simply can’t handle the training load that everyone else can. Instead of forcing them into the same volume and intensity as everyone else, you must consider lowering one if not both of them. Decide what qualities are most important for that athlete to be successful, then determine how much they can handle. You also may need to get creative and come up with alternate means of training these athletes to develop the most important qualities.
This leads me to my next point and something I’ve harped on in several other articles. Too many coaches out there automatically revert to running as the main conditioning tool to use with their athletes. While this is a very important component of conditioning, especially considering running is integral part of most sports, there are so many other resources out there with which a coach has to choose from in order to improve upon an athletes fitness levels. General strength, medball, weight lifting, general endurance, and scramble circuits are great ways to get athletes fit. Pool, bike, row and other cardio machines are also other resources that should be explored and considered when implementing conditioning.
Another very crucial thing to look at with your athletes is how they are running. This is where experience and knowledge on proper running mechanics becomes important for the coach. If you have an athlete that over strides, runs “toey”, or has poor posture, then you have a problem on your hand. When an athlete reaches on their stride and is excessively plantar-flexed then they will experience a lot of extra force coming down on their shins and they will be accelerating their risks of developing shin splints. These movement patterns are probably well established in the athlete so it will take lots of cueing and practice in order to develop a better running stride. Have the athlete focus on pushing underneath them and make dorsi-flexion a priority in everything they do. Whether it be the general warm-up skip and jog, hurdle drills, sprint drills, or actual running, make sure they are doing it right. Let everyone in the group know why you are working on this and how important it is in avoiding injuries.
In my experience, no fru fru ABC or towel exercises that the trainer has you do have done that much to improve upon shin splints. Often times too, the trainers prescribe strengthening exercise for the muscles of the shin once shin splints have developed. This doesn’t make much sense to me considering overuse is the main cause of them in the first place. Developing strength in a muscle that is already overworked makes me scratch my head. Having said that though, I think there are certain exercises that can help strengthen the shins prior to them being overworked. Performing various jumping exercises with full-footed contacts and conscious dorsi flexion helps to not only strengthen the muscles of the lower leg but it also teaches the athlete how to absorb forces correctly. While it is extremely important to push off the ball of the foot in sprinting and various plyos, the athlete needs to learn how to pre stretch and dorsi flex prior to touch down. Performing barefoot jump exercises in sand or a softer surface to start can help strengthen the shins. These exercises might include jumping jacks, crossover jumps, zig-zag hops and other variations in place and with some movement. The key is to make sure the contacts are flat.
Another great “intro to plyos” series that I like to do with my speed power athletes is a bound series. I was first introduced to the series when I saw an instructional video by Boo called the baby bound series. My coach had all of us jumpers perform the series and he was extra critical of technique. The exercises weren’t anything special, but the way it was performed had to be perfect and was different. It included very low level plyos with single and double leg variations such as all lefts or rights, alternating, laterals, medials. When performing the exercises the focus was on flat footed contacts, minimal knee bend(but not locked out), perfect posture and hip alignment, and performing a lot of reps. When you can’t hinge at the waist or bend the knees much, you don’t go very far so you can get a ton of reps in in a 10m segment. These bounds were later progressed by adding more hinge of the hip and bend of the knee while keeping the same sequence of exercises.
In addition to the above mentioned circuits, doing various barefooted walks can help with the overall health of the feet and ankles which in turn could help take some stress off the shins. Having a healthy arch is important because it has often been said that shin splints have been caused by athletes who over pronate and who have flat feet. Orthotics could also help with this although don’t automatically assume that you need them.
While these jumps exercises and walks could help your program overall, they won’t protect the shins from too much volume. I also don’t think it would be fair to say that one series of exercises is the key to healthy shins. Ultimately it is going to come down to a well-balanced program with appropriate volume/intensity and where both the coach and the athlete have an open relationship where they can discuss injuries or the onset of them. Once this is established and the coach knows what the athlete can or cannot handle, then the chances of success and reaching ones goals have a much greater chance.
Always remember the 10% rule. When increasing volume from week to week, don’t make huge leaps and bounds in your increases. Stick with no more than a 10% increase in total volume and make sure your athletes are ready for the next weeks training load.
As I mentioned previously, running mechanics are of utmost importance. This is often overlooked and can be the main thing causing shin pain.
I had an athlete last year that I worked with. She was a 400 runner and the amount of volume she could handle was minimal. She also ran “toey”. She could only handle 2-3 days of sprinting and couldn’t handle any tempo running. We stuck with a plan that involved pool and bike workouts and lots of general strength work. We tried to mimic the running workouts on the bike and she did some pretty killer workouts on there. We also addressed running mechanics in every session and got her stronger despite needing major modifications in the weight room also. Instead of forcing her to train like everyone else, I accepted the fact that she just couldn’t handle the overall volume of running and was going to need something different. She had a very successful season and PR’d in both the 200 and the 400 indoors and outdoors and ran our fastest leg on the 4×4.
One final note to consider is the surface that your athletes train on. I have my athletes do a ton of grass and turf work. We do almost all of our warmups/cooldowns and extensive tempo workouts on the grass. We even sprint and do plyos in the grass during the fall and ease into track work. If you have a nice piece of grass with no divots or an area of turf, consider using it. Even a nice mulched trail could work for some aspects of training. Think quality over quantity with everything you do. I’d rather have a slightly undertrained athlete who makes it to the starting line than one who hobbles to the start or doesn’t make it to the start at all.
About the Author
Eric Broadbent is a certified USA Track and Field Level 2 Coach, Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), holds USTFCCCA Track & Field Technical Certification, and a USA Weightlifting Sport Performance Coach. He also has over 6 years of coaching experience including coaching at North Carolina State and West Chester University. As an athlete, he won the USATF 2012 Indoor Heptathlon and was an Olympic Trials Qualifier. That same year he represented the US in the Pan American Cup and took 2nd place. As a national level competitor he also had top 6 finishes at the 2009 and 2010 Indoor Combined Events Championship and finished 10th at the 2011 Outdoor National Championships.