Running and Leg Pain: Why you shouldn’t just quit running
By Jeffrey Hagen, DPM
Visalia Medical Clinic
Recently I was at a high school track meet and watched a runner limp through an entire 2-mile race.
Anybody could see that with every lap she hurt more and more. Though she finished last, the spectators all gave her a rousing cheer for finishing the race despite the obvious pain. Soon after the race I saw that same runner still limping with ice wrapped around the inner side of the shins. “Aahh!” I thought, “the classic shin splints.”
I saw several other runners with “kinesiotape” around the legs and a few other limpers – likely co-sufferers of so called “shin-splints.”
I am intimately acquainted with this malady. I lived through a similar problem during my years of competitive running, and like this young lady, I kept running despite the pain, though it cost me – then and even now – more than 20 years later.
For some, leg pain associated with exercise is a handy excuse to avoid running (and exercise in general). For others, it is the equivalent of Kobe Bryant ripping his Achilles tendon – an end to what you love doing. If running hurts you or your young athlete, please read on. I have a little story to tell with some lessons that could be just what you need to know to keep you going.
I discovered running in other sports like baseball, wrestling, football, and soccer. To my surprise, I found that it could be quite a delight. In high school I decided to race. Admittedly, I probably over-trained, but I won my first Varsity cross country race to the surprise of the running veterans on the team. This was looking and feeling great!
Then the inner side of my lower legs started hurting. Initially, it was just a soreness after running for a certain time. Then I started to hurt earlier into the runs and on a daily basis. I was told the malady was “shin-splints” and got all sorts of advice that wasn’t helpful.
By the end of the season I was no longer the top runner, and I was struggling to keep up with the demands of being competitive. The same story repeated itself in track season. My coach would permit me to do some cross training – deep water running or cycling, but it was never enough to heal. In fact, at one point my coach told me to burn the running shoes and race bikes instead. Umm… not an option. I loved running and I loved the team, and I was too proud to quit.
This repeated experience of frustration with every running season climaxed near the end of my senior cross country season. Both boys and girls teams were poised to qualify for the 1992 Division 2 California state championships.
During a practice run a week before the qualifying race I knew there was something seriously wrong. I simply couldn’t run the whole course. My right shin was hurting constantly. When I tried running it felt like I was hopping on my left leg, an automatic compensation to protect my more injured right side.
Under these conditions my slower running would endanger my team’s chances of qualifying for the state championships. So I didn’t race. Instead, I spectated. My team did qualify for the state championships and, again, at Fresno’s Woodward Park, I spectated.
One of my teammates recommended I see a certain podiatrist. My initial thought was, “A foot doctor? My shins hurt, not my feet!” Up to that point I had seen an orthopedist, done some physical therapy, and eventually landed in the office of a prominent sports medicine doctor, whose walls were adorned with covers of Sports Illustrated signed by Olympic Gold Medalists.
After this doctor confirmed that my leg pain was no longer merely shin splints but actual stress fractures in my shin bone (tibia), I figured, “why not see the podiatrist?” because nothing else was working, including various kinds of running shoes and over the counter “arch supports.”
So, to be brief: the podiatrist actually watched me walk and run and prescribed custom-molded “orthotic” arch supports. They were indeed customized.
My tibia healed the crack over a couple of months. I started running again, this time with the orthotic devices and I waited for the shin pain to return. But it didn’t return. I ran my senior year of track with no shin pain! I didn’t quite qualify for state in the 800 but got closer than ever.
My shins still don’t bother me. I do, however, have a lingering habit of running harder on my left side as a result of the stress fractures on my right tibia. This does cause some limitations in my distance running capacity.
Induced leg pain should be checked out. Minor problems may be alleviated by physical therapy, smarter training and technique, proper footwear, and possibly off-the-shelf arch supports.
Persistent and worsening pain should be taken seriously and thoroughly evaluated. Continued painful activity on a damaged limb can have lasting negative effects.
Customized orthotic arch supports may be a key part of the solution if these are designed with the needed features to be effective.
Getting this problem resolved can result in years of active, healthy living. Not getting this resolved can result in a non-active, not-so-healthy lifestyle with chronic disease such as diabetes, unhealthy weight gain, and heart disease progressing with age.
Spend time and make the effort to be healthy today to avoid spending a lot of time being sick and disabled in coming years.
Jeff Hagen is a doctor of podiatric medicine with the Visalia Medical Clinic located at 5400 W. Hillsdale Ave. in Visalia.
– This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.