Our legs really take a bit of beating during the day. We tend to take all the work they do for granted. But whether it’s walking to the refrigerator to get a snack, driving to the store, or going for a proper run, our leg muscles are always being worked.
They’ve evolved to be used a lot, so they’re some of the strongest muscles in the body. But sometimes, especially if you do a lot of running or intense leg activity, they can become tired, sore, and make running a chore. Taken to an extreme, injuries can develop, and there is no more annoying running ailment than shin splints
Today we’re talking about how runners can treat and prevent shin splints. This painful condition can make your running miserable, but don’t worry! We’ll give you all the advice you need, including how to choose the best shoes for shin splints.
What are Shin Splints?
Shin splints might sound like something the doctor puts on when you break a shin bone. But really, it’s a common running injury that can happen to runners of all ages. It’s also known as medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS).
As you may imagine by its name, it affects the shin area – the front of the lower leg. Shin splints isn’t actually one particular injury (in the way that, say, plantar fasciitis is), but rather a loose term for repetitive stress pain between the shin bone, the nearby muscles, and connective tissue.
What are Shin Splint Symptoms?
The main sign of shin splints is pain. When you run, you’ll feel a shooting pain in your shins, either on one side or both.
There are two types of pain you may experience: bone pain, or muscle pain. Bone pain is more common than muscular pain, accounting for about 90% of cases!
You’ll know the difference immediately between a muscle cramp and bone pain.
In less severe cases, the pain improves after a warm-up, and stays away for most of your run. As you near the end of your run, it may return as the muscle fatigues.
In more severe cases, the pain doesn’t disappear after you warm up, and sticks around from start to finish.
What Causes Shin Splints?
There’s no single cause for shin splints. There’s also not usually a way to figure out which one caused yours!
But understanding the causes of shin splints can help you prevent them from getting worse, and once treated, prevent them from coming back.
Shin splints may be caused by:
Weak Lateral Hips
That’s right – hips. When we run, the motion comes all the way from the hips, down the leg. While it can be hard to understand how your shins are connected to your hips, the truth is that when the hips are weak, it can affect the shins (and the knees, too. Strengthen your hips!).
When your hips are weak your thighs try to compensate and end up rotating inwards in an unusual way. That, in turn, impacts the knee, which has an effect on the shin bones and muscles.
Strengthening your hips may help reduce shin splints because it keeps everything in proper alignment!
Tight Calf Muscles
When we run, the calves and shins work together. The calves help to propel us forward, while the shins stabilize and support us.
If your calves are tight, you don’t quite run in the same way as usual. You may take shorter steps, or flatter steps, not bouncing as much as you normally would.
This change in form can put extra stress on your shins, leading to pain.
Overpronation That’s Not Supported by Shoes
Many of us, when we first began running, were guilty of simply choosing a pair of shoes that looked great and made us smile when we saw them on our feet.
But just choosing an attractive pair of footwear is not enough to protect your feet from the rigors of running. This is especially true if your stride significantly deviates from neutral – that is, you either overpronate or supinate.
If you overpronate (your foot leans or falls inwards when you step), you need a stability shoe, not just a regular shoe. These shoes are designed to keep your foot in the right position and stop that falling over motion.
If you aren’t wearing the right shoes, your feet will be out of alignment. If your feet are out of alignment, your shins can suffer.
Not sure if you overpronate or not? Check out this article for some easy ways to figure it out!
Sudden Increase in Mileage or Intensity
New runners are more prone to shin splints than experienced runners. If your feet and legs are suddenly doing a lot more work than they’re used to, it can have negative effects!
Making the leap from not running at all to running three or four times a week is asking a lot of your muscles. But even if you have been running regularly for a year or more, jumping from 5 miles a day to 10 miles a day all of a sudden is putting twice as much pressure on your joints, bones, and muscles. That raises your risk of shin splints.
It’s best to ease yourself in and give your body some time to adjust! A standard guideline is to increase your mileage by no more than 10% per week. And that goes for long runs as well – ease that mileage up slowly to stay healthy.
Sudden Changes in Terrain
If you’re used to running on a track, and suddenly you decide to do a trail run on mountainous terrain, you can expect to feel sore in places you’ve never felt stiffness before.
The motions your feet and legs go through on the road or track are different than those on trail. The terrain is uneven, and your feet may not be used to making sudden adjustments that are necessary on bumpy terrain. Trails also tend to be hillier, and that puts extra strain on the front of your legs.
It can be easier to become injured. It’s also easier to develop shin splints, because your feet are moving in ways they never have before, and the shins need to work differently to stabilize them.
Shin splints are more common in beginners than advanced runners. This is usually due to new runners still finding their form.
The longer you’ve been running, the more you’re likely to have perfected your form. Your shins will be quite used to how you run, and won’t have any sudden adjustments to make.
New runners often unwittingly change the way they run due to fatigue, a niggly muscle, or even just actively trying out new ways to run. One common error is to lean too far forward, which puts undue pressure on the muscles in your shin.
This can cause pain in the shins as they’re trying to support the legs in every which way, putting pressure and strain on them that hasn’t been there before.
What If Shin Splints are Not Treated Correctly?
It’s important to treat your shin splints prompt and properly! If they’re not treated correctly, or at all, they can turn into a stress fracture.
This is an actual crack in the bone – the mildest form of a broken bone, but a broken bone nonetheless!
Stress fractures take much longer to heal than shin splints. If you don’t want to stop running for long enough to treat your shin splints, you may end up having to take an even longer time off to allow a broken bone to heal instead.
How Do You Recover From Shin Splints?
If you’re feeling shooting pain in your shins when you run, it’s best to take some time to treat it before going all out with your running.
Here’s what to do to recover:
Ice Your Shins
This may sound weird, especially if the pain is in the bone rather than the muscle. But icing your shins after a run can relieve the pain, reduce swelling that may come with it, and ease up any tightness in the shin.
When you get back home after your run, wrap some ice in a towel and place it on your shins for about 20 minutes.
Inflammation is ultimately what causes the pain of shin splints. Taking an anti-inflammatory can reduce inflammation and ease the pain.
Be careful what you take, though. If you’re a serious runner, it could be a good idea to go for something all-natural, like turmeric capsules or CBD oil (if it’s legal in your state).
Although you technically can continue running with shin splints, it’s a great idea to take a day or two off and let your shins recover properly before giving them a pounding again.
Continuing before they’re feeling better can make the pain worse, and even lead to a stress fracture (which will take weeks to heal, not just days).
If you do opt to rest for a few days, it doesn’t mean you can’t do any exercise. Take the opportunity to do some low-impact supplemental exercise that won’t aggravate your shin pain.
Cycling, rowing, swimming, or a session on the elliptical will all give you a great workout while going easy on your sore spots.
Activities like dancing are known to exacerbate shin splints, so now’s the time to ease off serious dancing or fitness classes that involve plenty of hopping, lunging, step-ups, and so forth.
Is It Okay to Keep Running When You Have Shin Splints?
Runners love weasling a “yes” out of medical advice that should be a clear “no.” So proceed with caution and a long view of your running plans. Technically, you can still run with shin splints. If you really can’t miss your daily run, then at the very least, make it easier than you normally would. But this is definitely a want-versus-need situation. You don’t need to run – you want to run. But you also don’t want your shin splints to get worse.
If you decide to get after it anyway, running on a treadmill would be ideal. The surface is smoother, more cushioned, and won’t change suddenly as the road or trail could.
Keep the incline small, if you use any at all.
It’s advisable to take a short break every 5 minutes or so to stretch your hips and calves, and monitor your pain level carefully! While light running might not make your shin splints worse, it’s also not going to make them get better.
Tips to Prevent Shin Splints
Shin splints are preventable! Even if you’ve struggled with them before, you can take measures to prevent them from happening again.
Strengthen Your Glutes, Hips, and Calves
Considering shin splints can be caused by weakness in the hips and calves, it’s a great idea to strengthen those areas so they don’t lead to the shins being compromised.
Create a 20 to 30-minute glute/leg workout. This can be bodyweight exercises or in the gym, but the important thing is that the exercises you choose target these muscles.
Do this 2 or 3 times a week, and you’ll reap the rewards in the long run. Don’t think you don’t have time for this! If you value your running and want to improve at it, this is a worthwhile investment to prevent further injury.
Add in some stretches too!
Tape Your Shins
KT Tape can be a valuable tool. When the shins are injured, the body sends lymphatic fluid to the site of the injury. In the case of your shins, it can cause them to swell or simply become painful.
Taping can help release the build-up of fluid and speed up healing. It works by helping the fluid to circulate under the skin much more quickly, which brings white blood cells to the injury site more quickly to get it healed.
Not sure how to tape your shins to relieve the pain and speed up healing? We’ve got a great primer for you right here!
Change Your Running Surface
If you usually run on concrete, try to change it up and run on a softer surface instead. This can lessen the jarring impact on the feet, which in turn lessens the strain on the shins.
If there’s just no soft running surface near where you run, it may be worthwhile investing in a treadmill, if you don’t own one already.
Consider New Shoes
Check if you’re overpronating! If you are, you’ll need to get a pair of stability shoes. If you can’t get a new pair of footwear right now, an orthotic or insole may be your best bet.
Wear Compression Calf Sleeves
Wearing compression sleeves can help improve circulation in your calves and shins, improving the speed of healing, as well as relieving pain.
Work on Your Running Form
Form is super important! If you get it wrong, your chance of injury can increase. If you get it right, you can be injury-free for most of your running career.
Getting your form right will take a load off your joints, from your ankles to your hips. You’ll also most likely end up running faster and fatiguing less quickly!
Foam Roll Your Shins
Foam rolling can serve the same purpose as compression sleeves, and improve circulation, which leads to quicker healing and pain relief.
Be Cautious When Increasing Mileage
Don’t do too much too quickly! Increase your mileage slowly to prevent pain as your muscles fatigue. Ease yourself into changes slowly but surely, giving your body time to adjust.
It’s a good idea to increase your mileage by no more than 10% every week! That way, you’re making steady progress but not overdoing it.