As most track stars know, there can be a price for speed. The track is often the place where athletes feel their speed and find their shin splints. Heather Fuhr and I meet for the purpose of resolving shin splint problems that had their beginning in high school. There are many theories about shin splints, however all agree that the calf muscle is involved. How can we bring the track and the calf together and leave the shin splints in the dust?
Some solutions are simple to see and hard to implement. To see the solution we will focus on how the calf is affected in different running positions. The key is to look at the relationship between the foot and the front of the shin as the foot hits the ground. Pros run with their knees and chest forward, and the feet and hips back, as if leaning into a wall. Because of this position the knee stays in front of the foot, which allows the calf to stretch before push off and contract afterward. Often an amateur will throw the foot forward, and the angle of the foot to shin will come close to 90 degrees or more. In this case your calf is tight both when your foot hits the track and when you lift the foot off the track. Not only is the calf contracted most of the run, but it is contracted at the time of impact. Simultaneous impact and contraction can be the very cause of calf/shin splint problems.
To effectively train your foot and ankle to get along, run in place with your hands on a wall. Notice the effect as you bring your feet further from the wall. Lead with the chest, and keep the knees in front of the feet. As you lean, you add a forward momentum to your running with no additional effort. Next, experiment with different positions when you run. The feet will either push you forward or pull you forward. The greatest power is in the push. Get the contact of the feet behind you, adjust your weight forward, and let gravity help.
The pros like to stay in front of the race and in front of an injury. For maintenance of the calf and prevention of shin splints the above mechanics are primary. However, they are not enough. Calves enjoy stretches and self-massage. All calf stretches work. It helps to have stretches you can use in different positions such as standing, seated and laying down.
The best time to stretch your calf is first thing in the morning or a few hours after a workout. As a triathlete, you can not over stretch your calves. As for self-massage, the pros will use a tennis ball, a short broom handle, their thumbs or The Stick.
Calves love attention and all attempts to help them will help. Stay in tune with your running mechanics, make the changes, be good to your calves and race and train forever.