How do you get shin splints from skiing?

Something came along that surprised me the other day – a ski instructor with shin splints. Now you’d imagine that with your feet and lower legs locked into a pair of ski boots, shin splints would be an unexpected eventuality. However, in this case the boots didn’t fit properly. They were brand new, top spec boots (Salomon) in November, but were basically too big for the occupant. Over the period of a few weeks of heavy training the inner boot began to disintegrate because of the amount of movement inside and things went downhill (forgive the pun) from there.

The person concerned felt the pain but pressed on, not really knowing what else to do, until she got to the point where she simply couldn’t ski any more and went to see a boot fitter who asked her how many years she’d had the boots for because they were so knackered! With the boots diagnosed, she still had no idea what was wrong with her lower legs (and lower back), hence we met. Basically, her poor tibialis anterior and posterior had been working so hard to stabilise her feet against the forces produced by her skis they were going the same way as the boot linings. Three weeks of rest and rehab and she’s now pretty much back to normal.

And the moral of the story is…you may prefer the feel of larger boots when you try them on in the shop with warm, relaxed feet, but ski boots must fit firmly. They are not meant to feel like slippers! Salomon replaced the boots with a brand new pair – of the correct size.

How to be a Telemark hero: fitness for Telemark skiing.

Telemark skiing is a particularly physically demanding sport, especially on the quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteal muscles. If you’ve never heard of it, here’s a video clip of me in action or a brief introduction courtesy of the Telegraph. Not surprisingly, an internet search pulls up various recommendations of barbell squats and lunges as ways of recreating the appropriate muscle action and overload for gym training. However, there is a danger that conventional squats tend to favour the quadriceps and are thus prone to produce muscular imbalance.  Also, if your knees are not tracking straight to begin with (i.e. they tend to move outwards or inwards as they bend), any squat or lunge type exercise you do is going to reinforce your existing posture and could hasten your progress towards chronic or acute injury. One way to check this on yourself is to do a series of single leg squats each side in front of a mirror and watch what happens to your knee.

So, if you’re a Telemark skier who wants to improve, or someone who’d like to give it a go, here are a few thoughts on useful preparation.

1. Have your static and dynamic posture assessed by a suitably qualified person, preferably one who has experience of Telemark skiing. Everyone tends to favour one side of their body over the other and this can produce some pretty dramatic postural variations. To ski well, you need to be able to reproduce the same movement pattern evenly with both sides of your body and if you have a fundamental postural issue, no amount of lessons will correct it and training will tend to reinforce it; you may also be leaving yourself open to injury.

2. Aim for balance between your quadriceps and iliopsoas (knee extension and hip flexion) and your hamstrings and gluteals (knee flexion and hip extension). People tend to naturally over-use their hip flexors and quadriceps, which are also prone to shorten because we spend so much time sitting down. This encourages a level of muscle tension which causes their antagonists, the hamstrings and gluteals, to relax and in some cases become ineffective. Other muscles then have to take on a greater workload, which can cause issues such as knee or lower back pain.

3. Build strength and endurance for eccentric contraction (when the muscle is contracting yet lengthening rather than shortening). A lot of the time your muscles are in eccentric contraction as they act to control a movement: for example your quadriceps as you flex your knee and react against gravity pulling you downhill. Eccentric contraction is far more demanding, particularly when the muscle is pushed to the extremes of its length/tension relationship, and preparing your muscles for that unexpected slip off the edge of a mogul or going over a particularly steep drop could save you from damage. Plyometrics (essentially jumping, skipping, hopping type activities which can be intensified by including depth jumps off benches etc) are good for this, and if you’re doing weights, bear in mind that lowering the weight steadily and under control is doing as much good as picking it up in the first place.

4. Make sure your muscles are able to move with fluidity and efficiency. The quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteals are muscle groups consisting of a series of separate muscles, each of which exerts a subtly different directional force on the joints. They have a tendency to become literally ‘stuck’ together by fascial tissue meaning they lose their individual movement properties and work as a single unit instead. Good separation between the medial and lateral hamstrings for example, is particularly helpful for skiers as they control rotation in the flexed knee (think of your edging). A good sports and remedial masseur will release adhesions, and rehabilitate scar tissue that will hamper efficient muscular contraction. They may also be able to identify problems that could lead to injury if unresolved.

5. Work on building a strong core with good spinal and hip stability. The forces generated by powerful leg and arm movements need the firm support of your abdominal core and the deep postural muscles of your vertebral and hip joints. Telemarking involves a good deal of twisting and side bending, so the deep, short transversospinalis muscles and the multifidus must be effective at creating and moderating this. Your piriformis and other external hip rotators are stabilising your sacro-iliac (SI) joint on your inside ski side as you increase pressure on your outside ski and accelerate it when turning. If they’re not doing this effectively and evenly on both sides, you are set up for SI joint pain. Targeting some of these small postural muscles with some relatively innocuous looking exercises can make a big difference to your overall movement efficiency. Working with a gym ball also helps increase the percentage muscle fibre recruitment over the same exercise performed on a fixed surface because you have to control your balance at the same time.



6. Include multi-planar exercises in your training. Many of the exercises recommended for Telemarkers are single plane, such as squats and lunges. In reality though you ski over natural and varied terrain with your body constantly adjusting its balance and applying forces in all directions in order to accommodate bumps, dips, slope camber, changes in snow depth and condition etc. Here’s a nice variation on the lunge to add to your repertoire.

7. Take up yoga. You don’t have to get into the happy-clappy, meditative stuff to get a great deal of benefit from yoga. It’s great for balance, strength, flexibility and overall movement control. It will also help improve your awareness of any differences in strength and range of movement between one side of your body and the other. I recommend Sage Rowntree’s book ‘Yoga for Runners’ as the poses are just as appropriate for Telemark as they are for runners. I also like her phrase: “Comfort with the discomfort of intensity” – something to bear in mind next time you’re keeping the turns flowing when your thighs are burning!