The strength training (i.e. tough guy) community has scorned running like a bastard child. They take pride in the fact that they can’t shuffle down the street without having a cardiac touting how “gay” it would be if they could. While I’m not recommending that a 250+ pound person needs to be running in the dead of a northern hemisphere summer, but the “running is gay” crowd forgets that some of the most badass shit happens when running.
Most general strength trainees won’t have any kind of fitness test running requirements, nor will they be required to run. However, most general strength trainees aren’t in danger of breaking anything but personal records and could use the capability of running 50 meters really fast if necessary (e.g. chasing a woman with a purse, hunting boar with a knife, or retrieving their dog). Getting winded after a sprint and NOT being on dbol just makes you an asshole. Besides, you should be able to go out and play non-sober softball or rec-league basketball any time you want without achieving crippling soreness.
Recently a reader of this site failed out of a 1.5 mile run in an application fitness test because of horrible shin splints. I want to first explain why shin splints occur, how to prevent them, and suggestions on progressions and technique.
What Causes Shin Splints
The standard technique of running is…no technique.
Just think about your own personal history in running, when did you learn to run and did anyone ever actually watch you and teach you how to run efficiently? If someone did, how do you know they taught you correctly? The assumption that one innately knows how to run simply by virtue of being human is not justified or appropriate.
–pg 84 of FIT, by Kilgore, Hartman, and Lascek
With the advent of the running hobby around the 1960s, shoe manufacturers reflected this interest by producing large, cushioned soles in their shoes to improve instance of injury — it didn’t really work, as there is a conservative report of 3 injuries per 100 hours of running (2,3). In any case, shin splints occur regularly in a trainee when they are unadapted to running — and this was the case in the reader who failed out.
When the initial heel strike occurs, the ankle is in active dorsi-flexion where the toes are pulled up; the opposite (or toes pointed down) is plantar-flexion. It seems odd that you would actively dorsi-flex your ankle, but it occurs; Brian Mackenzie shows people this all the time when viewing their slow motion replay. Consider it the byproduct of never being taught efficient technique and utilizing the available foot wear.
Image from FIT
When going through this “heel strike, forefoot flop”, the ankle is moving into plantar-flexion (toe down) while trying to maintain dorsi-flexion (toe up). The resistance of the movement causes the muscles that maintain dorsi-flexion to eccentrically act — they are stretched when still trying to contract. This is the same thing that happens to the hamstrings in an RDL: the hip goes through resisted hip flexion yet the hip extensors (the hamstrings) are resisting the action and preventing you from just falling over. Let’s substitute the terms and focus on the ankle while running: the ankle goes through resisted plantar flexion yet the dorsi-flexors (on the front of the shin) are resisting the action and preventing the foot from just falling forward.
If you paid attention to your muscle mag lore, you know that eccentric muscle action causes the most damage to muscle fibers and as a result more soreness (since the muscle fibers are being ripped apart while trying to stay contracted). The muscle on the front of the shin that cause dorsi-flexion (pulling the toes up) is primarily the tibialis anterior. When heel striking, it’s going through hundreds of repetitions of damaging eccentric action. The damage occurs along the entire attachment site of the tibialis anterior, which for this muscle is along the entire tibia (shin bone). That’s why it’s called “shin splints” since the entire shin is painful afterwards.
How To Prevent Shin Splints
Lots of people heel strike, but not everyone has shin splints because it’s relatively easy to adapt to. Had our failed reader done a few running workouts prior to the fitness test, he could have lasted the entire workout instead of hobbling off the track halfway through. Merely do a few short distance workouts and progressively increase over time; this is the same principle you would apply to beginning any new activity and something that is discussed in lots of detail in FIT.
An example of re-introducing running would be running several regular paced 50m intervals. Notice I didn’t say 15 intervals or 400m; it’s purposely low to allow adaptation. Crippling soreness with new activity is your fault and an indication of lack of care, ignorance, or stupidity. Progressively increase the total amount of work over time (perhaps up to 10 intervals), then increase the distance (100 meter intervals), and then progress into regular distances and intervals (repeats of 200m or 400m). Notice this is all at a regular pace instead of a fast pace; in this case, we’re conditioning the structures instead of the energy system capability. In this simple progression, it’s assumed that the trainee is still heel striking.
A complete discussion on efficient running mechanics would leave the scope of this post, yet it revolves around proper balance over center of mass, not heel striking, and running on the fore foot. To learn this technique, I’m partial to my friend Brian Mackenzie; I have been to his running seminar and he’s a cool dude (and has an awesome pitt bull). The biggest mistakes I see people doing with this are running on the toes (which is too far forward), pointing the toe prior to making contact with the ground (which is probably an equally injurious position to heel striking), trying to extend the hip back (instead of pulling the foot/ankle up), and bouncing up and down (instead of streamlined). Realistically, if you’re interested in proper technique you should find a coach (the easiest way would be to call a CrossFit and see if they have any people that have been to Brian’s seminar and are a decent coach). Not many people can teach themselves correct squatting technique, and if they do, a coach is usually needed to get it on track. Running is similar, and if anything more difficult because of it’s dynamic nature.
There are a lot of drills that can help you learn and improve running economy, and you should be able to find some on the CF Endurance website. The two best cuing concepts I’ve used are “lift the foot up the inseam of your opposite leg” and doing it with a “relaxed ankle” (with the latter being the hardest). By pulling up an imaginary inseam (think of wearing pants), the foot goes up instead of back, and the relaxed ankle prevents unnecessary toe off. For lifters who have heard the “mid-foot” cue, it helps to imagine landing on that point, or slightly in front of it.
When introducing new running technique, EASE INTO IT. Lots of critics will cite how this new technique is more injurious than the old technique. However, with any new activity, slow and progressive increase of that activity is how to adapt optimally without injury. You may feel like you’re capable of more, yet the soreness after will be a reminder that you were wrong. Develop the new skill over time — Mackenzie recommends a six week introductory program before attempting regular workouts.
If you’re interested in a complete analysis of running research, running mechanics, foot wear, and endurance training principles, then check out the Endurance Chapter in FIT (release day is less than a week away).
People like sources:
1. Kilgore, Hartman, and Lascek. FIT.
2. Buist, I., et al. Incidence and risk factors of running-related injuries during preparation for a
4-mile recreational running event. British Journal of Sports Medicine 44:598-604, 2010.
3. Marti, B., et al. On the epidemiology of running injuries. The 1984 Bern Grand-Prix study.
American Journal of Sports Medicine 16(3):285-94, 1988.