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.
Most everyone that has ever served in the military, has suffered the pain 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, it is always about proper preparation.
Being a Special Operations veteran, we always tend to lean towards physical preparation but then in the same breath, we’ll say that about the Selection courses that they are 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 this. While it is physical in nature, dealing with a problem like we’re going to discuss today will go far in being a mental hurdle that won’t have to be crossed. This will become much clearer below.
One of the biggest issues we’ve found in candidates that failed to get selected in 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 trying to pass the physical gates and keep up with the grind that is Selection.
As they became more and more worn down, 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 quit. You could see it in their eyes and it happened far too often to be a fluke.
One of those issues, a very common one 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 followed the PT program to prepare for Selection and which ones didn’t. Several looked like they never picked up a ruck before stepping foot in Selection, where 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 the newcomers to the military or in those types of units mentioned above, it will be measured in months. For the already hardened troops, that prep time will be lessened a bit.
But like we always do, we speak of the subject of rucking, which is the big discriminator in Selection. And the only way to get better at it is to practice it. It is no different than shooting or any other perishable skill.
I routinely recommend candidates run most days with about 3 days a week dedicated to rucking. And one of the most common problems among the newcomers while rucking comes in the form of shin splints.
If shin splints, which are preventable, are allowed to take hold, will lead to blisters elsewhere and a myriad of problems after that.
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.
They are fairly common, especially the morning after a long road march. Even experienced troops can suffer from them, usually from dehydration. This is why we always preach stretching before and after a long ruck and proper hydration. Poor hydration tends to make the cramping all over your body worse.
While a cadre member at Selection, we had a candidate who was a personal trainer before entering the military and 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. But convinced it was simply curiosity on my part, he swore by it and he convinced some members of his class to try it. They did that together before a timed gate and had a much lower instance of shin splints.
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 lean 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 stop for a moment. It can help and do wonders.
Back when I was working at Selection, I actually arrived 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. So after getting home, two of us were having a couple of beers with our neighbor — who was an SF (Special Forces) guy who later became a Doc (PA) out at JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command).
This was around the second week of selection when the candidates began limping around with what we called the “Selection Shuffle.” That pronounced limp where the candidates would bounce/hop along in the compound reminded one of “Stumpy” the Walter Brennan character in the John Wayne classic “Rio Bravo.”
Well anyway, the talk got around to the current course and we were talking about how the candidates were already hopping around. Our PA friend, deadpanned, asked “Were they walking like a duck?”
Yes indeed, we said, at which time he said it wasn’t a shin, foot, or blister issue at all, but an issue with the hips. He then explained that a hip flexor issue with either tightness or weakness was the culprit.
Of course, we were intrigued by this. He then explained that 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.
Which 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.
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.
And 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 push that candidates do squats and the sled push in physical training prep programs for Selection. I used to hate Leg Day at the gym, and at times due to arthritis, I’d rather train anything else — but now we know we can’t ignore it. And 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.
A final problem with shin splints is the act of rucking itself. Many…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, my PA told me that it is essentially 3-4 times your body weight landing 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 in the middle around the ball of your foot. Easier said than done right? So, practice…practice and then practice some more. Your shins will thank you in the long run.
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.
Photo courtesy: US Army