When it comes to preventing shin injury, such as shin splints, in running, growing research shows a clear relation between forefoot running and significantly less mechanical loading on the lower leg, suggesting that forefoot running may be more fully sufficient in making your shins much less vulnerable to pain and injury as compared to heel strike running, a more force-intensive running style.
But if you’re a forefoot runner experiencing shin splints, some evidence points to the explanation of running with a narrow step-width as a potential mechanical slip-up that may perpetuate painful shins and that widening your step-width may be the simple mechanical modification you may want to consider making to specifically de-escalate over-strain on the shins, helping you stay on a more shin-pain-free path.
Step-width is defined as the distance in width between your feet at each step. The illustration below gives you a more clear-eyed view of what a narrow vs a wide running step-width looks like:
One line of research helping to validate that widening your stance when you run may work exceptionally well for reducing strong impact forces acting on the shins came from a 2014 study in the Journal of Biomechanics.
The study investigated the effects of step-width manipulation on shin strain in runners and found that when runners were given verbal cues to run with a narrower or wider step-width, both of which were to be 5% more or less than their preferred step-width, the runners that widened their stance had the greatest reductions in medial compression and tissue loads on the lower leg as compared with a crossover, or a narrow step-width running gait.
More notably, the researchers also found that a wider run step-width reduced normal stress loads and anterior tension on the lower leg as well as greatly reduced posterior and medial tibial compression, suggesting, with high confidence, that a wider running stance may promote sustainable impact protections on the lower leg and may make a lasting difference in helping prevent shin splints and even tibial fracture.
By comparison, other studies indicate that a narrow running step-width may cause and keep shin splints ongoing by pushing pronation, hip adduction and knee internal rotation out of tolerance which may altogether increase the medial-lateral ground reaction force, torsional loading and tibia strain of which such forces may open up the possibility of developing a shin fracture.
At this point, researchers examining the benefits of a wider run step-width on easing mechanical burdens and impact on the lower leg has gathered enough evidence to conclude that widening your stance when you run can have a strong corrective effect on mechanical defections as well as profound effects on overstrain reductions and may therefore, give you a good shot at leaving shins splints behind for good.
A handy tip I learned from Chi Running was that to help widen your run step-width, try to run over top of the line on the side of the road, making sure your feet land on either side, not on or across the line but rather your running step-width should equal the width of your hip.
Meardon SA and Derrick TR. Effect of step width manipulation on tibial stress during running. J Biomech, 2014;47, 2738-2744.
Brindle, R.A., Milner, C.E., Zhang, S., Fitzhugh, E.C., 2013. Changing step width alters lower extremity biomechanics during running. Gait Posture 39, 124–128.
Pohl, M.B., Messenger, N., Buckley, J.G., 2006. Changes in foot and lower limb coupling due to systematic variations in step width. Clin. Biomech. 21, 175–183
McClay, I.S., 1995. The use of gait analysis to enhance the understanding of running injuries. Mosby, St. Louis MO, pp. 395–411.
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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.
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