Why I Want to Talk About My Shin Splints
During the long descent on our last backpacking trip, I reflected on the state of my legs and my journey with shin splints. That night in the tent, I obsessed over every sensation in my leg, wondering if I finally pushed it so far that I can never return to the mountains. Previous injuries have steered me away from other physical activities, including ballet, running and climbing, but hiking and backpacking were the things I could not fathom giving up. More so than any of the others, I feel it defines who I am and how I approach the world.
While this is primarily a space to share my experiences outdoors, this injury has massively affected the way I interact with the wilderness. It has forced me to redefine what I consider an “adventure” and focus my goals. When it has felt worthless to continue rehabbing and better to just give up, interacting with the outdoor community has inspired me to address my injuries and achieve my goals. I want to share my experiences with overuse injuries with the aim of helping others when it starts to feel a little hopeless.
This post is an introduction to how I arrived at my current injury. I plan to post a number of essays in this series, including recovery steps for shin splints, coping mechanisms for being stuck inside injured while the rest of the world is outside playing and the impact of social media on healing. I struggle with the fear that I do not have the right voice or qualifications to discuss these issues, yet appreciate when others share their physical struggles.
So, I am excited to start this series and hope to approach it with sincerity and levity (levity provided via gif). If you are just here for the standard content, feel free skip this one and return later this week for a dehydrated peach chicken recipe to take on your next backpacking trip!
I began dancing at the age of three, pink leather shoes and tight buns illustrating my childhood. Not only was it my primary form of exercise as a kid, it defined how I see the world. I loved it. Then, I suffered a foot injury in college. After doing ballet for 17 years, where exercise was delivered in a rigid and controlled environment, the loss was devastating. Thankfully, discovering a passion for marine biology and developing my career left little time for mourning. The antics of undergrad kept me busy and I didn’t replace ballet with any other physical pursuit. Occasionally, I would take long walks, and often half-jogged to class, but it was a far cry from the type of dedicated exercise I had previously engaged in.
After spending a year at sea, a year of working 3 jobs, excessive eating and stress, I finally realized that exercise might be a good idea. I was living on San Juan Island, on-call for elusive killer whales and their precious fecal matter with endless time to kill, so I began to run. Ungainly, with the grace of a raccoon spooked from a garbage can in the dark night, I started to gain mileage. I loved it. The feeling of my feet hitting the pavement, the familiar lung burn, and the slow and steady progression felt incredible. I had so little control over most things in my life (recent college grad, heyo!), and having control over my body changed everything for the better. For the first time, I felt untouchable.
Shin Splints–Round 1
Then, my four-year romantic relationship abruptly ended. Running stopped being casual exercise and became the only time when I felt in control and at peace. Chasing that momentary bliss meant I started running faster, and farther, relentlessly. I would go to the gym or find an outdoor running path and run until I collapsed. Obviously not sustainable, my legs gave up.
As a classic overuse injury, I developed shin splints, or medial stress syndrome, on my inner left shin. Without the physical distraction from my heartbreak, I had to do some real emotional work. I backed away from unhealthy running, embraced yoga and made some significant life choices concerning my career. I returned to running 6 months later, happy, and with new motivations.
I started hiking, had gone on two backpacking trips and wanted to trail run. I loved the outdoors in Washington, and I figured anything that allowed me to see more of the trail would help. I wanted to be strong, fit, with power-lungs and the ability to tackle alpine environments. Running felt so different than in the past when I came to it as a whole, complete person, committed to being healthy. I was sure my mental outlook would protect me from my injury-prone ways.
Regardless of motivation, my goals still drove me to greater mileage than my body could take. One more mile running meant I could add two more miles of backpacking that weekend. I just discovered what the outdoor scene in Washington had to offer and I couldn’t get enough. Becoming a part of the outdoor scene in Seattle meant there was always someone running farther, hiking faster or being a bit more epic. Pictures of far off places showed up on Instagram and I felt like I would never catch up. My cousins and coworkers were eagle scouts and started backpacking when they were young kids while I discovered backpacking when I was 26. I wanted to catch up and squeeze 20 years of experience into three years.
Shin Splints–Round 2
And so, my shin splints returned. This time from joy, exuberance, and love rather than heartache, but tendons don’t care why you run too much. This time, the injury was much worse. I took time off from running, spent hours icing, stretching, doing strengthening exercises.
My shins began to recover and I returned to backpacking. I tried running a few times but each time I ran more than a quarter-mile, the symptoms returned. I began to give up hope of running and concentrated instead on the other things that brought me joy: backpacking, climbing, snowshoeing and yoga. I still ached to run and seethed with jealousy when other people discussed the marathon they were training for. Still, my body continued to propel me up mountains and scale cliffs. I started top-roping and bicycling. The void had been filled.
Shin Splints–Round 3
The most recent round of shin splints began last January. With New Year’s resolutions in tow, I became overzealous in the climbing gym and developed elbow tendonitis on my right side. Stuck at home for a month, doing physical therapy daily, I began to condition my shins at the same time and hoped to start running in March. I figured I could give climbing a break, swim to gain stamina and not be pressured to overtrain while running and start easing into running again.
I pulled out all the old physical therapy documents and worked on strengthening my whole body. I developed a conservative running plan that increased my mileage a quarter-mile per week, with an involved warm-up, cool-down and cross-training plan. I thought I was doing everything right–and by the book, I was.
But alas, 100 meters of light, slow jogging immediately caused shin pain. After about a month of rehab, physical therapy, and slow runs, I was waking up with shin pain in the morning. The frustration of not having shin splints, then developing shin splints from a routine meant to avoid a return injury was overwhelming. Unlike my previous injuries, that manifested out of overtraining and ignorance, this injury developed while I was actively working to stay strong and injury-free.
Despite my diligence and determination to avoid injury, I was stuck in April with shin splints. A backpacking trip in May caused a flare up that forced me to stop ignoring the kitten nibbles along my shin and talk to a physical therapist. And there began the great mystery, attempting to determine the cause and develop a plan for healing.
It has been five months since the first significant flare, and between my team of three physicians and an acupuncturist, we have yet to find a cause or cure. The next installment will address treatment methods we have tried, what worked and what didn’t and plans for the future. If you have faced issues with injuries, or circumstance taking you off the trail, please share in the comments!