Shin muscle pain is all too common in running and a large part of the blame is on conventional style running shoes –running shoes that are stiff with a built-up cushioned heel– because such shoes encourage, what I call a mechanical dysfunction known as ankle dorsiflexion (a precursor to heel striking) upon touchdown during running, which is a major risk factor for running-related shin splints. More simply put, HOW you land on your foot when you run may either make you MORE or LESS prone to shin splints AND that running shoes with a cushioned heel may set-up the mechanical parameters (heel strike) that may perpetuate increased shin strain.
Amazingly however, landing with a forefoot strike during running may do a better job at safe-guarding the shins, and thus soothe shin splints as compared with heel strike running, BUT one sure way to develop a more optimal, shin pain-free forefoot strike is by running barefoot!
Soothe Shin Splints by Running Barefoot
The evidence seems to indicate that barefoot running may reduce shin splints because it dramatically reduces ankle dorsiflexion at touchdown, enabling a forefoot strike that’s more on-target, that’s less energetically taxing and that’s less mechanically-threatening on the shins!
One physiological process that may underlying shin splints in runners is high EMG activity of the tibialis anterior (shin area) upon foot strike (i.e just before the foot strikes the ground).
- High shin EMG activity correlates to high dorsiflexion upon touchdown during running, a foot action commonly used by heel strike runners, suggesting that heel strike running may be a risk factor for shin splints and that avoiding heel strike may help prevent the condition.
- A commonly accepted theory is that reducing dorsiflexion reduces shin EMG activity, thereby preventing muscular exhaustion and shin splints during running.
As I mentioned earlier, the construction of most conventional running shoes makes it easier to heel strike during running. Another worrisome trend is that shin splints is concerningly high among heel strike runners (most of which whom run in conventional running shoes). In contrast, a flat minimalist running shoe, or barefoot running may place the foot in a favorable position that reduces dorsiflexion at touchdown during running, which is very likely to be necessary for reduced EMG-activity in the shins, and thus less proneness to shin splints.
- Tscharner at el., (2003) found that barefoot runners who were shod-heel strikers had less shin EMG activity compared to runners in a cushioned running shoe, implying that the shins are more restful during barefoot running which may prevent shin splints.
Overall, between running barefoot and running in shoes, the significant difference in muscular events occurred prior to touchdown. Why?
In barefoot running, the sensitive plantar skin is exposed and a forefoot strike is utilized to diminish impact, especially under the heel (Robbins and Hanna, 1987). To avoid heel strike and allow initial contact on the forefoot, the forefoot is not kept up by the shin muscles at touchdown, resulting in less muscular activity at the shin.
Running shoes however, causes a runner to use dorsiflexion to heel strike, which is responsible for the higher muscular activity in the shins. –the researchers indicated that this muscular activity must be executed rapidly at impact to release the forefoot.
The finding makes it inconceivable to believe that the modern running shoe is unacceptable for shin pain management. If you have shin splints, try running barefoot, or in minimalist shoes and give your shins a rest by devising the ability to NOT lift up your forefoot upon touchdown.
More From Run Forefoot:
Ankle Dorsiflexion at Touchdown – What it is and why it leads to injury.
High Arches – If you have high archers, find out the proper way to run without injury.
Why Run Faster – Discover how you actually save more energy when you run faster than your comfort pace.
Maintaining Good Form – Tips on how to prevent your form from breaking down.
Robbins, SE and Hanna, AM. Running-related injury prevention through barefoot adaptations. Med Sci Sport Exerc, 1987; 19(2):148-56.
Tscharner et al. Changes in EMG signals for the muscle tibialis anterior while running barefoot or with shoes resolved by non-linearly scaled wavelets. J Biomech, 2003; 36,1169-1176.
BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.