Could Your Shoes Be Giving You Shin Splints?

You know that annoying pain in your lower legs that never seems to get better? This leg pain always seems to slow your training just when you are starting to make some real gains. This group of lower leg injuries commonly referred to as “shin splints” is one of the most commonly occuring injuries in active people.

Unfortunately, the advice people get on the prevention and treatment of these injuries when shopping for athletic shoes is far from science. Most people end up with shoes that are not helping their condition, or are even causing it.

The good news is that with the proper shoe selection, shin splints can be prevented or reduced. This article will arm you with all you need to find the perfect athletic shoe and it focuses on the individual needs of you or your clients. The trick is to know the characteristics of your feet, and to be able to match them with the key characteristics of an athletic shoe. 

It all begins with knowing your feet. Many of us have heard before that we have flat feet, or an abnormally high arch. Knowing this information is crucial because the truth is, most of what we need in an athletic shoe revolves around our arch type.

A flat foot, commonly referred to as a pronated foot, is characterized by excessive motion. That means the foot is loose and “gives” too much under the weight of the body, thus appearing flat when bearing weight.

A high arch foot, commonly called a supinated foot, has it’s own associated problems. A supinated foot is a rigid foot, and a poor shock absorber. As such, excess forces of movement get transferred up the leg to be absorbed by some other body part, in this case the bones of the lower leg.

A neutral (normal) foot is a middle ground between the pronated and supinated foot. This foot type is the biomechanically correct foot and is not prone to either type of shin splint specifically, but symptoms may persist.

Chances are, if you have never heard one way or the other which foot type you have, you are neutral. Later in this article I will present an easy way to identify arch types that will work on anyone.

So, how do these foot types tend to cause shin splints? First let’s take a look at the pronating or flat foot. The tibialis posterior is the primary muscle responsible for maintaining the arch of the foot when you bear weight on the feet (see diagram).

But we already know that the pronating arch tends to collapse under load. So what’s happening is a tug-of-war between the collapsing arch and the tibialis posterior with each step. Over time, the collapsing arch wins the war. Due to the excessive forces in the tibialis posterior, the muscle’s origin begins to be pulled away from its attachment on the tibia.

Obviously very painful, a person experiencing this condition will generally feel discomfort on the distal medial (lower inside) aspect of the leg felt near the border of the tibia and the soleus muscle, near the midpoint of the leg. Keep in mind that the pain may not be isolated to one spot because the origin of the tibialis posterior covers a large area.

Now let’s look at the supinating (high arch) foot. Recall that this is a rigid foot and does not absorb shock well. As stated, this foot transfers more of the forces of impact up the leg. The tibia is the bone that suffers the most in this condition. Hairline fractures may begin to form in the bone. A person with this type of shin splint will feel pain in the anterior distal (lower front) of the leg, somewhere on the bottom half the shin.

One can distinguish this condition from the flat foot shin splints because this type will be most tender to touch directly on the tibia (shin), usually anterior (in front of) the tibialis posterior muscle. This condition can further be identified by visible swelling (lumps) on the shins. In either type of shin splint, the pain will be the worse during and immediately after exercise.

Now that the kinesiology is out of the way, let’s get to the footwear. If you are flat-footed, you want a shoe that controls the motion of your foot. Remember that a flat foot undergoes excessive motion. To combat this problem, you look for a shoe sole that is rigid from the base of the toes (usually the widest part of the sole) to the heel. You also want a good, solid heel cup. This is the region of the shoe the cups and stabilizes the heel above the sole.

This combination acts as a brace for the foot, holding it in the neutral position and preventing pronation. How do you check a shoe for these characteristics? You have to get your hands on it! Squeeze the heel cup area above the sole. Is it firm or spongy? With one hand, hold the rear of the sole and place the other on the widest part of the sole near the base of the toes. Give it a good twist! Bend it! Did it feel solid or spongy?

Now compare it to other shoes in the store. I have found that Asics shoes with the motion control bar typically fare the best in this category. Do you agree?

If you have flat feet, you want the shoe to be firm in these key areas, but still flexible in the toes. This will maintain the integrity of the arch of the foot, thus reducing the forces on the tibialis posterior muscle during exercise. This will relieve the tendency for the tibialis posterior to begin tearing away from its tibial attachment (see above), saving a lot of pain and lost training.

What if you have a high arch? You already have a rigid foot, so you have no need for motion control. What you need is shock absorption. If your tendency is for hairline fractures of the tibia because of excessive force transferred through the foot, then you need to absorb some of that impact force with your shoe.

Try on some shoes! Jump around a little! You are looking for a shoe that cushions your impact with the ground. I have found that Saucony athletic shoes are usually the best in this category. What do you think? You may further benefit from an added athletic sole insert designed for shock absorption.

What if you have a neutral or middle of the road foot? In your case, you are not specifically prone to either type of shin splint discussed in this article, although symptoms of either may still occur. Shoe selection is not as crucial for you. You want to look for a shoe that is a trade off between the two technologies discussed above. Look for a fair shock absorber, with descent stability in the sole (from the base of the toes back), and heel cup.

The one characteristic that ALL athletic shoes should possess is a flexible toe region. This prevents overworking the Gastro-soleus complex (the calf) during activity and opening yourself up to a whole different catagory of athletic injury.

So how can you find out what type of foot you have? Here is one of the easiest ways to find out. With no shoes or socks on, get your feet wet. Now take a few steps, and take a look at your footprints. Compare your footprint to the diagram given. Understand that most people are somewhere in between the two extremes. Use your best judgement to gauge where you fall on the bell curve.

It is important to keep in mind that this information is useful for ALL active people, and not just those who commonly experience shin splints. Following these principles of shoe selection will help prevent, not just cure these lower leg injuries to you or your clients.  Good luck with your training!

  • Published on October 1, 2012
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