Shin Splints. The name immediately conjures up images of intense pain from the bottom of the knee, down the front of the leg to the top of the ankle.
Almost everyone that has ever served in the military has suffered from those nasty buggers at one time or another. But an easy fix for most of us is readily available.
So whether you are a boot entering the military for the first time (where most shin splints are suffered) or a candidate wanting to pass one of the various Selection courses in the military, we’re all susceptible to shin splints. Like anything else, dealing with them is always about proper preparation.
We Special Operations veterans always tend to lean towards physical preparation but then in the same breath, we’ll say that everything is mostly mental in nature. Yes, the two definitely go hand-in-hand as the more physically prepared you are, the more confident you will be when tackling the next obstacle in your path.
So this small fix fits right into the problem of shin splints. While it is physical in nature, dealing with it effectively also has a mental component. This will become much clearer below.
It all starts with preparation
One of the biggest issues we found in candidates that failed to get selected in Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) during my time was that their failure was a combination of both the physical and mental. How so? Many of the candidates underestimated the physical preparation required to pass and showed up woefully unprepared. As a result, they began to suffer and they were unable to keep up with the grind that is Selection.
As they became increasingly worn down, and at a faster rate than their peers, they sensed that they were falling behind and failing. And as it so often happened, they mentally checked out. While they “officially” didn’t voluntarily withdraw, they had quit. You could see it in their eyes and it happened far too often to be a fluke.
A very common issue among candidates, especially among those who were coming from a non-light infantry, Airborne, or Ranger type of unit was their inability to carry a rucksack. It became apparent rather quickly which candidates had followed the PT program to prepare for Selection and which ones hadn’t. Several looked like they had never picked up a ruck before stepping foot in Selection. They thought they’d be able to gut through the course… wrong.
It takes quite a bit of time to properly prepare for the rigors of Selection. For newcomers to the military or for those not in the units mentioned above, it will be measured in months. For the already hardened troops, that prep time will be slightly lessened.
Perfecting your rucking prevents shin splints
One of the most common ways to get shin splints is as a result of rucking.
Rucking is a very important skill you should master. I routinely recommend that candidates run most days with about three days a week dedicated to rucking. However,
Shin splints are preventable. But if they are allowed to take hold, they will lead to blisters elsewhere and a myriad of problems after that.
Too many candidates ruck and will pound their heels into the ground. This is a byproduct of the hip issue. It puts tremendous strain on your joints and will cause shin splints, among other things. When you land on your heels, you essentially place three-four times your body weight on your feet.
When lifting your foot off the ground, it should be relaxed. And when landing, you shouldn’t be landing on your heel but on the middle of your foot around the ball. Easier said than done right? So, practice… practice and then practice some more. Your shins will thank you in the long run.
Here come the shins splints
No, I’m not a doctor, PA, or a Special Operations Medic, so I can’t give you a medical diagnosis for what they are but I can explain in layman’s terms: Shin splints are when you get pain just below the knee down the front of your shin and it feels like your calves are trying to bust through the shin bone.
Shin splints are fairly common, especially in the morning after a long road march. Even experienced troops can suffer from them, usually as a result of dehydration.
This is why we always preach stretching before and after a long ruck and properly hydrating. Poor hydration tends to make the cramping all over your body worse.
Stretching away your troubles
While I was a cadre member at Selection, we had a candidate who was a personal trainer before entering the military. He was doing a simple stretch that I hadn’t seen before. As soon as I asked him about it, he immediately clammed up thinking I was going to adversely assess him for some reason. After he became convinced that I was just curious, he swore by it, and persuaded some members of his class to try it. They would do the stretch together before a timed gate and as a result, experienced very fewer shin splints than the other candidates.
Intrigued, I tried it before my next ruck PT session, and voilà! It worked pretty well.
This stretch is done by kneeling on the ground with your feet, legs, and heels together and leaning as far back as possible. It doesn’t sound like a calf stretch, but it does work, especially when on the trail for a while and you need to stop for a moment. It can do wonders.
Everything is interconnected
While I was working at Selection, I would arrive home at a decent hour, which was rare in those days, as the cadre was very shorthanded. (We normally would just live out there during the classes, as the hours were as long for the cadre as they were for the candidates.) One day after getting home, I began talking to my neighbor, who was a Special Forces guy and later became a doctor out at JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command).
This was around the second week of selection when the candidates had already begun limping around with what we called the “Selection Shuffle.” (The Selection Shuffle is a pronounced limp that looks like a bounce or hop. It resembles that of “Stumpy” the Walter Brennan character in the John Wayne classic Rio Bravo.)
Well anyway, the talk got around to how the candidates were already hopping around. My friend, deadpanned, asked, “Were they walking like a duck?”
Yes indeed, I said. He then replied that it wasn’t a shin, foot, or blister issue at all, but an issue with the hips. He explained that a hip flexor issue with either tightness or weakness was the culprit behind shin splints.
Everything is interconnected, and if a candidate has either tightness or weakness in those hip flexors, the strain of carrying the heavy weight of the rucksack will change their gait and put much more stress on their shins and feet. And no amount of stretching their calves out will compensate for bad hip flexors.
This was why the candidates shuffling along would begin to stretch those calves out every night and each morning before we’d go off on another lovely trip in the pine forests and swamps of lovely Camp Mackall. And after a very short amount of time, they’d be right back in the same pickle.
Keep those hips in shape
I revisited this after going to physical therapy a couple of years ago. Arthritic knees were (and still are) the cause of intense discomfort and pain. Here, once again, my therapist said that my hips were tight due to the gait I was using to compensate for knee pain.
The cure for that is really simple: Just stretch those hips out by using a foam roller or a lacrosse ball. We used both the foam rollers and a lacrosse ball, and the results were unbelievable. I was soon able to resume rucking again. Perhaps not to the same extent as back in the day but much, much more effectively. I use the TB12 vibrating foam roller, and my hips require daily stretching, lengthening, and pliability to keep those muscles working properly.
This is why I insist that candidates do squats and the sled push in physical training prep programs for Selection. I used to hate Leg Day at the gym. Due to arthritis, I’d rather train anything else. But not anymore. If you’re going to be in Special Operations, your legs are the vehicle that will get you around. They have to be strong and support your upper body by carrying all that weight.
So, as I get off the floor from the foam roller, I have to ask… Who’s up for some rucking today? Don’t be late, don’t be light, and don’t be last.
This article was originally published in November 2020. It has been edited for republication.