Shin Splints in Triathletes

Shin splints are the bane of many triathletes’ racing seasons.  They come with little warning, and when you have shin splints you are usually affected for a while – in some capacity.  The fact is that calling something a “shin splint” is a bit of a catch-all term, but it tends to mean you have soreness and pain in your shin – either the inside or the outside.  The pain is always on the front half of the leg, and always between the knee and the ankle.  If the pain radiates to your knee, you likely have other issues.

As you might imagine, shin splints are most likely aggravated by the run leg of triathlon training.  While cycling might affect some leg issues, shins are in a very protected position during cycling, so it is likely not going be a common culprit.  And while swimming definitely causing some shin/calf movement and can result in foot or ankle cramps, the motion is rarely enough to cause shin splints.  The main cause of shin splints in triathletes is pretty simple:  It is an overuse injury associated with running.

Shin Splints Symptoms

There are a few telltale symptoms of shin splints that usually tell you that you are dealing with them, especially if you have recently been increasing your running mileage or are in a run-dominated period of your tri training.

  • Discomfort or pain on the outside part of the lower leg. This is typically
    Pain will be concentrated around the tibia.

    on the soft tissue away from the shin bone (which is actually the tibia, but we will call it the shin bone to keep it simple), but almost always concentrated in the front half of the leg (not in the calf).

  • Pain on the inner part of the lower leg, just on the edge of the shin bone. This inside pain is often closer to the ankle than the knee. It is often a dull pain, not a sharp, shooting pain.
  • General pain or discomfort along the entire shin area. If it is a persistent but dull or moderate pain, it could be shin splints.  Anything that is more pronounced, intense, or shooting, and something that is emanating from one spot that you can point to, is often something else such as a stress fracture.  (You are better off having shin splints).

What Causes Shin Splints?

Shin splints is a catch-all term, but the pain typically originates in two specific muscle areas on the shin.

Several things might cause shin splints, but the good news for triathletes is that the cross-training inherent in the sport should reduce the odds of a bad case of shin splints.  Overtraining is the single biggest cause of shin splints, and while a marathoner might be running five or six days a week, the typically triathlete might be more on a twice-a-week schedule for the runs.  That by itself reduces the risk considerably.

Another factor linked to shin splints is taking on too much mileage to fast.  If you are coming off a winter rest season, or perhaps new to the sport of triathlon, be sure that you ramp-up your mileage and intensity gradually.  We know, this can be hard to do.  The enthusiasm associated with a new training season is often strong.  But some of the worst overuse injuries come right when you are feeling the absolute best.

Finally, stretching is an important part of any training plan, but if you are prone to shin splints, be sure you are stretching a little more.  Lower-leg stretches,  such as a good, full calf stretch, should be part of your training regimen.  Especially after a run, be sure to allow five to ten minutes for stretching.  Anything that stretches your calf will help your shins.

Shin Splints Treatment

Once you suspect that you have shin splints, there are a few things you can immediately try to reduce the effects.  Like with most workout-related injuries, the treatment depends on the severity.  Most cases of shin splints can be addressed with some rest and home remedies.  In more severe cases, medical intervention might be necessary.

A simple calf stretch can do wonders for splints. Just take it slow!

One thing is known, though.  Don’t try to run your way through shin splints.  Stop, rest, and if you are a triathlete, focus on swimming and perhaps some cycling for a while.  We know, it can be hard, but if you don’t you will likely make the case last longer.  Once you have taken a break, the try the following:

  • Ice is great for so many running injuries, shin splints being no exception.  You can use an ice pack, try an ice bath, or use the dixie-cup method:  freeze ice in a dixie cup, then peel away some of the paper on the bottom and simply rub it around your shins as it slowly melts.  This method is the lowest-tech but possibly the most effective.
  • Achilles and calf stretches. Making sure you keep your lower leg well-stretched is critical.  Do your favorite calf or ankle stretches, such as standing on a step and lowering your calf down, and sitting on the floor and stretching your ankle with your hand by moving your foot.  When you finally have gotten rid of the splints, do not stop doing these stretches – they may prevent the next round.
  • Try compression socks. Compression socks are used by runners and athletes around the world to help reduce the swelling associated with shin splints, and to create additional blood flow to the affected area.  These can be used during workouts but are perhaps most effective during recovery, in-between runs.  Studies have shown that the main benefit of compression gear is to help accelerate recovery.  Just be sure the sock goes all the way up to the top of your shin, just below the knee.  It is a little like getting a continuous massage on your calf and shin.  Which brings us to….
  • See a sports masseuse or therapist. Masseuses or therapists who specialize in helping athletes can be invaluable to someone with shin splints.  They often see many cases of a particular condition each week, so have a great sense of what works as well as being able to quickly gauge the severity of your case relative to others.  Be sure that whoever you see does bodywork – massage, stretching, etc. – instead of simply trying to sell you some device or supplement.  The good ones in this industry are worth their weight in gold.

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