Sooner or later, shin splints will rear their ugly little faces.
If you’re lucky, it’ll only hit a few athletes. If not, you’ll have a group full of kids whose legs are pudding.
If you’re blessed with living in a cold weather environment where you’re stuck in hallways all winter, you have a 1253% greater chance of shin issues than people who experience the heat of the sun during winter months.
I’ve never had an indoor track so I’ve learned to make my living in the concrete jungle. And over the years I’ve stabilized the incidence of shin splints to well within a manageable level, especially if factoring out freshmen.
I don’t have bikes. I don’t have a pool. And I’m not Curtis Frye, so I can’t employ a philosophy of recruiting freaks, putting them in a grinder and then, if they break, getting another one.
So, here are 3 reasons athletes get shin splints and some ways to design/plan training in order to proactively head these issues off at the pass.
#3 Way to Avoid Shin Splints: Improve Ankle Mobility & Strengthen the Feet
PROBLEM: Your athletes have shin splints.
Most kids have poor ankle mobility in one or both feet.
Dancers and gymnasts spend their whole childhood being taught to point their toes. It is unnatural to them to do the opposite.
Athletes with team sports backgrounds (especially football and basketball) routinely sprain their ankles. So they tape the ankle up to stabilize it. It heals, but the athletes do nothing to gain back their mobility which leads to more problems.
Then we have ‘weak feet’.
Excessively padded sneakers and not enough time spent barefoot are two simple, but universal factors adding to shin splints.
SOLUTION: Consistent ankle mobility and lower leg development exercises as part of the warm up and warm down.
Every practice we have contains some combination of ankle mobility exercises and/or lower leg/foot strengthening exercises.
I’ve stolen a good deal of my (minimal) understanding of how joint mobility/stability impacts health and sports performance from Mike Boyle.
One simple ankle mobility series we do is:
1x (each leg) Ankle (write the) alphabet
2×10 (each leg) knee push
2×5 (each leg) 3 way knee push
1×10 (clockwise, counter clock wise) ankle circles
We also do a consistent amount of barefoot walks and lower leg work. Here is a lower leg ‘circuit’ or ‘routine’ I stole from Boo Schexnayder’s ‘Exercises for Sports Performance Training’ DVD:
Gemini Single Leg Toe Raises (L-R)
Squat Toe Raises
Side Foot Toe Raises (L-R)
Closed Everted Toe Squats
Toe Lunge Walk (L-R)
See more at: http://completetrackandfield.com/training-inventory
Add these movements and exercises into the general training portion of your practices and you’ll start to see a reduction in shin splint issues.
#2 Way to Avoid Shin Splints: Improve Running & Bounding Mechanics
PROBLEM: Your athletes have shin splints.
Inefficient running/bounding mechanics minimize the foot’s ability to absorb ground contact forces. So: shin splints, plantar fasciitis, heel bruises, etc.
We spend a lot of time ‘reaching’ for the ground leading with the toes.
Kids who are short can’t reach the ground with their legs when sitting in chairs so they constantly point their toes toward the ground.
When we walk down stairs, for example, we ‘reach’ for the next stair by pointing our toe down. Tens of thousands of stairs later and athletes default toward pointing the toes. And they don’t even know they’re doing it.
How does this manifest in training?
‘Casting’ during acceleration.
‘Reaching’ or ‘braking’ during top speed running.
Toe first landings during hopping and bounding exercises. (Heel issues in your jumpers are from toe first landings, not heel first landings.)
SOLUTION: Consistently teach, cue and drill a ‘flat footed’ landing.
When teaching bounding drills, cue a ‘flat footed’ or ‘rolling heel to toe’ (rocking chair) and/or even a ‘heel first’ landing.
It’s a bit of an over cue, but athletes must constantly be reminded of getting the toe up (touch the top of your shoe with the top of your big toe) and strike the ground with a ‘flat’ foot (the arch of the foot should strike the ground first).
This often means spending more time doing ‘remedial’ drills, teaching technique and posture (as opposed to just running workouts) and regressing/remediating your practice activities when athletes don’t execute properly.
Everyone wants to do wicket drills, but not if they’re landing on the toe.
Everyone wants to do fancy bounding drills up, on and over 48” boxes, but not if they’re toeing the landing.
#1: Way to Avoid Shin Splints: Don’t Run so Much
PROBLEM: Your athletes have shin splints
Sprinkle poor ankle mobility with poor running mechanics and add a whole lot of running/interval volume and you’ve got a recipe for a shin splint epidemic.
Spend all of your training time on a concrete hallway, school parking lot and/or side street and compound the issue.
SOLUTION: Don’t rely so heavily on ‘tempo’ for your perceived ‘conditioning’ or ‘fitness’ needs.
You can’t do the same workout in a hallway or on the street that you’d do on a track or grass field.
Truth is, you’re probably not going to be able to run optimal workouts when you’re stuck in the concrete jungle.
I like the 4×400 twice as much as the 4×200, but my 4×200 teams have won more than twice as many Championships.
My “facilities” are more conducive to ‘200m training’ than ‘400m training’. So I play the hand I’m dealt.
Here are 2 simple ways I mitigate the risk of developing shin splints.
1. Don’t do multijumps on concrete.
Outside of some skipping, I’m not bounding on concrete or up stairs. I don’t have any data on it, but since I stopped doing ‘stair workouts’ for ‘conditioning’ or hopping up them, my shin splint issues fell off.
2. Replace tempo runs/workouts with circuits.
We do much of our recovery and work capacity development in the form of bodyweight circuits of varying rests and activities (jogging at various paces, skipping, etc.) between exercises.
Particularly in events below 400m, I find this to be more efficient and effective at developing fitness and biomotor skill than extensive tempo runs.
For intensive tempo, I’ll often give long sprinters a relatively long and somewhat challenging continuous warmup to do so that they get to the ‘running’ part of the workout already in a state of fatigue.
If we’re forced outside, I can get away with less volume. If we’re doing some sort of ‘turn around’ or ‘400 the Hard Way’ type workout, I can get away with less volume and, again, still get (roughly) the same physiological response.
If you just look at the ‘interval volume’ of one of my workouts, it would look like we don’t do anything. But, if you look at the total amount of ‘work’, you’d see we do a lot. Just, maybe, not a lot of what people might call ‘running’.
Combine all of these ideas with a commonality based approach to training (http://completetrackandfield.com/commonality-based-coaching/ ) and not only will you see a marked reduction in your incidence of shin splints and other lower leg injuries, but you’ll also develop better overall athletes.
Latif Thomas owns and operates Complete Track and Field and serves as the Co-Director of the Complete Track and Field Clinic, the largest track and field clinic in the United States. A popular speaker and presenter at some of the largest coaching clinics in the country. Over the past 15 years, he has coached more combined League, Division, All State and New England Champions in the sprints, hurdles, and jumps than he had the emotional strength to go back and try to count. Follow @latif_thomas on Twitter