Imagine finding your groove on a run, feeling strong, and thinking about pushing yourself a little harder when you feel a searing pain down the front of your shin.
The ache on the front of your lower leg points to pretty much one thing—shin splints. It’s more common than you think in runners, but it can be a real blow to your training.
The good news is that running with shin splints is possible… If you do it right and you’re willing to change your training to heal as fast as possible.
Let’s dive and figure out how to keep shin splints at bay.
What Are Shin Splints?
Shin splints—more formerly known as medial tibial stress syndrome—is a common overuse injury. It’s often confused with a stress fracture or tendonitis. It tends to happen on the inner side of the shin bone but can occur on the outer side as well.
When you’re struck by shin splints, the shin bone and the tissues around it become inflamed. In some cases, it’s mild inflammation due to impact or injury during running.
But in other cases, the muscles next to the shin bone begin to tear away slightly from the bone, creating a sharp, intense pain.
On other occasions, shin splints can turn out to be anterior tibial tendonitis, inflammation of the tendon running down the front of the foot.
As it’s pretty tough to tell off the bat what the actual problem is, shin splints are generally considered aching pain on or right next to the shin bone, which may be accompanied by swelling.
How Do You Know If You Have Shin Splints?
The first sign of shin splints is pain. You’ll feel it along the tibia, the bigger of the two bones in your shin. It could be an unbearable ache, or it could be more of a minor twinge, depending on how severe it is.
You may also experience swelling in the same area. The skin may be red and feel tight, and your range of motion in your foot could be affected. The pain will likely ease up when you’re at rest and get worse when you exercise.
Because shin splints can be mistaken for a few conditions—some of which are more serious—it’s wise to stop all exercise and get your legs checked out by a medical professional, just to be safe.
What Causes Shin Splints?
Shin splints can arise as a result of different things. If you’re suffering from shin splints, look hard at your running schedule and figure out the cause. It’s essential to know so you can prevent it from happening again.
Overuse is by far the most common reason for this injury. If you’ve recently increased the number of times you run per week, upped your pace, or been running for significantly longer, this may be causing your pain.
Your tissues, tendons, and muscles have been accustomed to a certain level of exercise. When you suddenly increase the amount or intensity of your runs, the added exercise can cause inflammation.
Incorrect Running Form
Running form. So simple, and yet so easy to get wrong… And the majority of us aren’t doing it quite right. Heel strikers may be prone to shin splints because the foot strike is jarring and can damage those tissues around the shin bone.
This is particularly true for heel strikers who do a lot of downhill running. The “braking effect” can nail your lower legs, giving those tissues and muscles more of a workout than they bargained for.
Shoes That Don’t Provide Adequate Support
Many runners are wearing shoes that don’t support their feet… And you may be one of them! If your shoes aren’t right for your arch or have flattened cushioning, they won’t absorb that shock as you land… And all of that impact goes to your feet and legs.
The arch absorbs some shock, but the calf is the first big muscle on the way up. It takes the rest of that impact force, which makes it weaker and more susceptible to becoming inflamed.
On some occasions, shin splints can develop due to muscle imbalances in the lower leg. If you have weak stabilizing muscles on one lower leg, the shin bone may be placed under excess stress during exercise, causing inflammation.
Overpronation and supination can cause instability on every step. When your foot rolls inward or outward more than a normal amount, the surrounding muscles, tendons, and tissues are subjected to high stress.
Other potential biomechanical issues that could contribute to shin splints include an abnormally shaped shin bone and leg bone misalignment, although these are much more rare.
Surface and Terrain
Run on hard surfaces like concrete sidewalks or asphalt roads? You may be more at risk of shin splints, as these unforgiving surfaces are more jarring on the feet and legs than softer ones.
If your running surface is uneven and has you running downhill a lot, the motion’s mechanics may strain your shins more.
Can You Run with Shin Splints?
You can run with shin splints, but we recommend waiting for them to heal before you return to running. Pushing through the pain may worsen the condition, and if you’re one of the unlucky ones, it can develop into a tibial stress fracture, which takes much longer to heal.
But we know how hard it is to take a break from staying active while you wait to heal. If you don’t want to put a halt on your physical activity, you can continue with a few tweaks to reduce stress on the shins.
Our best advice is to switch your running out with a shin-friendly form of cross-training. You’ll still be able to burn some calories and maintain your fitness level, but your shins will get a break. Swimming and aqua running are two great choices.
If you must run, we suggest strapping your leg from ankle to knee with an Ace bandage or using KT tape to support your shin while running. Warm up for a little longer than usual to get the blood flowing through the inflamed tissues before starting.
Lowering your mileage could be a good idea until your shins are properly healed. Steer clear of the hills and try to run on softer surfaces until you’re back to full form. Now is also a good time to double-check your running shoes and make sure they’re properly suited to your feet.
When Shouldn’t You Run with Shin Splints
Running is a definite no-no if your shin splints have progressed to being a stress fracture. But how do you know if it’s that bad or if you don’t need to worry? Here are a few quick tests you can do to gauge the severity of your shin pain.
Gently feel up, and down the shin bone on the side that’s painful. Take your time with this, and pay attention to what you feel. Is there one particular spot on the shin bone that’s more painful than others? Or is the pain similar all along the shin bone?
General pain along the shin bone is more indicative of shin splints. A definite tender spot on the shin could indicate a fracture, in which case, you should avoid running until a doctor has assessed you.
Try to hop on one leg. If you can get a few hops in despite feeling pain or discomfort, it’s likely to be shin splints. On the other hand, if hopping is impossible due to pain, it could be a stress fracture. No running for you in this case!
Still not sure if you should be running or not? Use these factors to assess your condition and make an educated decision.
- Severity: How’s your pain on a scale of 1 to 10? If it’s more than a 3, running should take a back seat until it’s healed.
- Pain Progression: If running makes your pain worse, then you probably shouldn’t be running! Give it a break and try again in a week or so.
- Pain At Rest: Pain not going away after exercise? That’s a good sign that… You shouldn’t be exercising.
- Pain At Night: If the ache in your shins is keeping you up at night, it’s advisable to see a doctor or a physio before you run again.
- Gait Changes: Is the pain in your shins causing you to change the way you run? If you’re unable to keep your form due to the pain, it’s best to take a step back.
In the end, it comes down to you. But keep in mind that pushing through the pain may worsen the condition… And then you’ll be forced to take a break that may or may not become permanent, depending on the severity.
Give up a few weeks to get your shins back to a healthy state, and start taking steps to prevent shin splints from happening again. You’ll thank yourself later.
Exercises to Prevent Shin Splints
While you’re recovering from shin splints, you can incorporate these exercises in your daily routine. They’ll help to strengthen your lower leg muscles, which can go a long way toward stopping shin splints from happening again.
- Single Leg Bridge: Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor, and hands at your sides. Press your heels into the ground and raise your hips off the floor until they’re at 90-degrees. Raise one leg into the air, hold for 10 seconds, then switch legs. Do 3 sets per leg.
- Heel-to-Toe Raise: Stand with your weight evenly distributed on your feet. Roll back onto your heels and lift your toes off the ground. Then, in a smooth motion, roll forward onto your toes. Flow back onto your heels and repeat this as 10 to 15 times.
- Calf Raises: Stand straight, feet about hip-width apart. Lift yourself up onto your toes, hold for a second, then lower your heels back to the floor. Do 15 to 20 reps. You can hold something heavy if you want to increase the challenge.
- Toe Walks: Raise yourself onto your toes and walk 25 to 30 steps. Your feet should point forward, although you can add outward-pointing and inward-pointing sets too.
- Heel Walks: Lift your toes off the ground so you’re standing on your heels. Walk 25 to 30 steps without putting your toes down; you may need to walk next to a wall to stabilize yourself.
- Wall Toe Raises: Lean your back against a wall for stability. Raise your toes off the floor, hold for 10 seconds, lower, and repeat for 3 to 5 reps.
- Toe Curls: Place your foot on a towel or blanket. Curl your toes inward, pulling the towel towards you. Do 10 reps on each foot.
How to Treat Shin Splints
Shin splints got you down? Treat them properly, and you’ll be back on your feet and flying down the sidewalk/road/trail in no time. A word of advice: be patient with your treatment and recovery.
Rest and Reduced Activity
Rest is always the first port of call for injuries. Even if you have no intention of taking a weeks-long break, we highly advise taking at least a few days off—it’ll just give your shins a touch of space to rest and recover.
If possible, stay off your feet for a few days. Use it as an excuse to take time off work if you must… But reducing activity will make a big difference to how your legs recover.
Applying ice to the painful parts of your shins can ease the inflammation. Wrap an ice pack in a towel before applying it to the leg, to avoid getting ice burn. Lay it on the shin for 15 to 20 minutes, every few hours until the inflammation eases.
An OTC painkiller and anti-inflammatory can help you to handle the pain. But there’s one big caveat here—if you’re taking meds, don’t assume you can get back on the road when your legs are feeling better. You could do more damage without even feeling it!
Customize Your Foot Support
Orthotics can be a runner’s best friend, especially if you suffer from chronic shin splints. Misalignment of the foot joint or excessive pronation could be to blame for the pain… and an orthotic can fix the problem.
You may be able to find an over-the-counter insole that works for you. Check your pronation type before investing in one, though, to be sure you’re getting something that’s right for your foot.
But if you’re serious about supporting your feet, going straight to a podiatrist for custom orthotics is the way to go. It’s a bit more pricey, but worth it for the support and stability you’ll get from it.
A physical therapist can offer some insight into potential causes for your shin splints, as well as providing you with a list of exercises that’ll strengthen the surrounding muscles.
Before you think you’ll just check YouTube for exercises, going to a physical therapist trumps doing your own research because they’ll be able to identify things like gait problems and muscle imbalances that could be contributing to your pain.
Massage and Foam Rolling
Massage and foam rolling are underrated ways of treating shin splints, but you do need to be careful. Go a little too hard with your roller or fingers, and you’ll make it worse, so a light touch is key here.
When done right, foam rolling and massage increase circulation to the inflamed spot. Pro tip: massage your shins with your hands, but stick to foam rolling the calves rather than the shins.
Tips for Preventing Shin Splints in the Long Run
Nobody wants to have shin splints more than once. Follow this advice to prevent shin splints from returning and cramping your style again.
Wear the Right Footwear
The right support and cushioning are essential. If your arch isn’t supported as it needs to be, your other muscles and tendons will compensate, making you more susceptible to shin splints and other issues.
Go Easy When Adding Miles
Increase mileage and intensity in small increments to give your body time to adjust. Also, only increase one of them at a time.
Warm Up & Cool Down
Get blood to those muscles before exercising, and cool down to reduce stiffness and maintain flexibility. You only need to spend 5 to 10 minutes on each.
Change Your Surface
Switch to the track, park, or trail rather than running on unforgiving roads or sidewalks. A simple surface change can make all the difference to the comfort of your legs.
Choose cardio activities that take strain off the shins, and switch out a run or two per week with these. Not only will they give your shins a break, but they’ll help prevent boredom with the monotony of running.
Do Strength Training
Build those lower leg muscles, because they’ll support your bones, tendons, and tissues. You should be doing at least one lower body strength training session a week, and one upper body and core session.
Get in the habit of stretching the Achilles, calves, and shin muscles. Yoga can help a lot, and it’s easy to do in the comfort of your own home.
Get Your Form Right
Video yourself and analyze your form. Fix the issues. Or, get a coach to help you. You can also ask a knowledgeable running friend to check you out and help you make changes.
Exercise Your Feet
Add foot- and ankle-strengthening exercises to your daily routine. They’re easy to do at home and in just a few minutes.
Rest and Recover
Don’t skimp on rest. Get at least one full day of rest, eat well, stay hydrated, get enough sleep, and listen to your body.