A while ago a gentleman came to see me suffering from recurring shin pain whilst running. This had been going on for about a year and is a common complaint with runners, often attributed to poor biomechanics and from increasing your running distance too quickly. The pain had been ongoing for three months and he had completely stopped running in the past two weeks, but he hadn’t increased his running hurriedly and when I examined him he didn’t have any pain over his shins or the muscles surrounding them, which made me question whether biomechanics and overload were the cause.
So, digging deeper, I asked if there was any significant stress at the time the pain began, knowing that this can produce over-activity in the nervous system and lead to pain. He said that yes, he had been particularly busy with work and also had some family issues to deal with. When the pain began, he attributed it to a biomechanical overload of the shins and in his subsequent runs he consciously focused on this area to assess whether the problem would reoccur. I asked him what he had been thinking about during his runs and he said he was analysing whether he could feel pain in the shins or not.
He calculated that the pain had begun about eighteen minutes into his last run. When it got close to that time into his next run he began to focus even more closely on his shins and, sure enough, at that point, whilst feeling anxious of the potential pain, it reappeared. By consciously focusing on the shins, the nervous system became more protective of this area and, as a result, the pain increased as part of a protective mechanism.
This is a particularly common occurrence amongst runners. There are few distractions when engaged in a solo activity and the mind can easily focus on parts of the body where there may have been a past injury or where you perceive there to be one now. As a result, the nervous system becomes activated and focused on this area of the body. This leads to over-activity of the receptors in that area with a subsequent increase in localised muscle activity. Not only could this lead to pain, but is also likely to make you a less efficient runner!
Next time you’re out running and happen to experience pain, be aware of what you were thinking about. Were you running stressed? Were you thinking about problems at work or difficulties at home? If so, it may have been this that caused the pain. Were you focusing on that calf that felt a little tight in your last run? Or were you thinking about that patella tendon or ITB that was sore a few years ago? If so, you may be causing over-activity in the nervous system and potentially causing the pain by over analysing your body.
Energy follows thought
So what can you do to help prevent this? Well, mindfulness meditation is a great way of reducing stress by focusing the mind on your breathing and not on the things that could be causing you stress. It helps to induce relaxed breathing, improving circulation and relaxation in the nervous system and muscles. You can do this before or during your run.
Visualisation is also an effective technique. If you are imagining that your muscles are tight or that your ITB or patella is rubbing, then this could lead to over-activity. Imagine the muscle feeling energised and relaxed, bathed in a warm healthy blood flow and it will more than likely respond by relaxing and not tightening up.
Or tell yourself that you are going for a run just to enjoy it, for the love of it, not worrying about your time or doing well, just enjoying what you love. Focus on your surroundings rather than your body.