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Foam roller vs Massage for SHIN SPLINTS? here's the answer!

Updated: Apr 13, 2023

In my short years of treating as a PT, I didn't realize till a couple years ago, the overwhelming quick-fix trend for shin splints on Dr. Google...

The FIRST things that comes up: Foam rolling.

why….


In this blog + video, let's debunk the myth that foam rolling will fix your shin splints.

And at the same time: if you shouldn't foam roll your shin splints, is a massage gun ANY BETTER?

If you are currently struggling with shin splints, this is for you!



What Do Foam Rolling (and massage guns) Actually Do?

Short answer: very similar things!

  • It’s all just input.

  • But...the devil is in the details.

Long answer: It's all about the amount of control you have with either tool

  • The amount of deep pressure being applied to the area is dependent on YOU

    • how hard are you rolling? What setting do you have the massage gun on?

What you are doing by using either a massage gun or foam roller is creating a physical input which gets translated into a neurological stimuli ...an "input" for the sake of this blog.

TRANSLATED: Think of it this way...

  • someone pokes you, squeezes your arm, and the muscle (your bicep or your shoulder) physically gets smooshed with a gentle squeeze.

  • But how do you know that it's not dangerous?

  • How do you know the squeeze is just a friendly "hi"?

Because of this:

"proprioceptive enhancement – stimulating mechanoreceptors in the muscles and/or fascia, such as golgi tendon organs, or muscle spindle fibers, or ruffinis, or pacini's " [these are muscle and joint receptors]

  • You know you're ok because the external input (the squeeze, tap, poke,) is translated by these receptors in your muscles.

  • The various muscle receptors then translate that into a signal for your brain.

  • Your marvelous brain then creates an physical output- muscular a response.

The OUTPUT is what you feel and experience afterward foam rolling/massage gunning! (muscles feel looser, stretched, relieved, etc)

And for some runners, using a foam roller, massage...it’s not amazing.

Check out what this runner had to say:

“I feel better without foam rolling. I seriously hate it. I do much better with stretching and mobility work….If I used the foam roller before a run, that run would usually suck, if I used it after, I’m just more sore.”


Other runners, it’s like they’re a whole new person. They LOVE IT!

And that’s OK!

STORY TIME:

My personal experience with foam rolling:

Has been very 'meh'.

I can very easily take it or leave it.

  • If I'm super sore from any kind of workout, then it helps for a couple hours to relieve the soreness.

  • But for general pre-run warm up, it doesn't do anything for me (so I don't foam roll before running).

But massage guns…

  • the only ones I've tried so far have been ones with really pokey attachments

  • and the experience was the opposite of relaxing and my pummeled calf didn't do anything in response (it felt exactly the same as prior, just beat up)

  • in other words, I need more time using one to give you a more in depth review

But everything we described already:

  • those receptors in your muscles, they're all taking the input from a tool, processing it as a neuro (brain/nerve) input, and creating a physical output/reaction.

It's all just information.

And it's all about how your body responds to that information.

SHIN SPLINT RECOVERY STORY:

I've been working with a runner, helping her ditch some lingering shin splints by working on running performance.

And she's been at it from November 2022 until March 2023.

(I know, a long time. She's a rock star.)


She first came to me telling she'd done all the things:

  • iced, foam rolled

  • compression socks

  • biking instead of running

  • regular strength work

She was a lot like another runner, asking:

"Massage guns….yay or nay? I have one and I think I like it, but is it actually helping anything?"

She would use her massage gun before and after her run, and it would sort of help.

But the shin splints were nowhere near going away.

At least, not until we worked together, did some testing, made a running performance exercise plan specifically for her to help her ditch the shin splints….

And she stuck with those exercises.

And we progressed them.

And THOSE became the foundation of her recovery!

In the past couple months, she started using the massage gun on her shins more and noticed it helped reduce any residual soreness so she wasn't sore afterwards or the next day.

And the miles started to add up from 2, to 3, to 5…and most recently 8 miles!

She still used plenty of recovery days…


But the massage gun (and compression socks) became EXTRA tools, not the main tools in her return to running journey.

And honestly, it was a HUGE surprise to me!

But only because I haven't had amazing experiences with foam rolling, massage guns.

But does that mean those tools don't "work"?

And the uber-sciency reason above is WHY.


Her nervous system really liked the input of the massage gun, and it resulted in a positive output-decreased or no pain or soreness.

For me: my nervous system apparently couldn't care less.

WHY NO FOAM ROLLING FOR SHIN SPLINTS?

I tell runners to NOT FOAM for shin splints…

Because I see so many runners do it wrong.

  • There's no instruction manual that I know of for foam rolling (if there is, someone please tell me!)

  • And because "how to foam roll" is so murky…

  • A lot of runners think "more is better" or "foam rolling harder is better".

In this case: more is just more.

If you're NOT feeling a benefit from foam rolling like decreased pain or tension, or not as sore or achey…then you're body (and nervous system), probably doesn't need it.

And it's not going to fix your shin splints, when in reality, shin splints is most likely caused by a muscular imbalance…and maybe some bone damage.


Thinking about it: rolling or massage gunning really aggressively over minor bone damage…Let's NOT.

And the same theory applies to massage guns.

SHOULD YOU MASSAGE GUN YOUR SHIN SPLINTS?

It depends.

You can…

If you're like my runner above, who had a firm running performance plan in place and knew how and when to use her massage gun and actually felt better from using it.

WHEN IT'S OK TO MASSAGE GUN YOUR SHINS:

  • use a broader attachment head, so it's not a real pokey, aggressive one

  • don't feel you need use a higher or harder setting. More is just more.

  • don't bruise yourself. If you have, you've done too much

  • if your shins (or wherever) actually feels worse after using a massage gun, it's probably not meant to be. Your body is trying to talk to you.

Remember: No fancy recovery tool is going to fix your shin splints on their own.

Shin splint recovery is a big picture journey.

And if you want help with that, hit me up in the comments below or DM me on IG at dr.whitt.fit!


And until next time, running fit fam.

Dare to Train Differently.


Marie Whitt, PT, DPT// @dr.whitt.fit


P.S. Ready to Ditch Shin Splints?



 

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