Shin splints is a term that is used for some different conditions causing pain in the lower leg. It’s an injury not only runners experience but due to the nature of the movement and the stress on your lower legs, runners are at high risk.
It is another typical overuse injury that is very common especially among beginning runners. Shin splints are no severe issue but again you have to react accordingly. It can be treated at home with some simple exercises and of course by cutting back on your running for a while.
Pain in the lower legs around your shins isn’t necessarily shin splints. There are other, more severe, issues that could be the case if you experience pain in your lower legs. So being careful with your own diagnosis is crucial.
But before getting into diagnosis and treatment, let’s start at what shin splints are in the first place.
Shin splints are often also called medial tibial stress syndrome. The inside part as well as the outside part of your lower leg close to the shin bone can be affected.
When you have shin splints, the tissue connecting the muscles to the shin bone gets inflamed. Often this starts out with a tight part of the muscles close to the shin. So it’s a good idea to press your muscles with your thumb the morning after a workout day to check if you have any tight spots.
Shin splints are probably THE classic overuse injury and should you have them you most probably did too much too soon.
But not only beginning runners are at risk to experience shin splints. It also happens often for advanced runners who suddenly change the surface they run on or if you switch from flat to hill running.
Like with most other inflammatory injuries the main symptom is pain, swelling and maybe you can also feel that the skin is warmer around the painful spot compared to other spots or the other leg in case that it’s fine.
The pain can occur either on the inside or outside of the shin. Often it starts dull and achy but then becomes more sharp and severe. For most the pain starts some minutes into a run. It gets gradually better with resting but could also improve while working out.
There are two other lower leg issues that are more severe and you have to be careful when you try diagnosing what you actually have. If you are not sure, go see a doctor!
So if you are not sure and the issue doesn’t get better with the treatment described in the following chapter, go and see a doctor!
Obviously you have to cut back your running mileage and intensity since the amount of training or the change of your regimen brought you in the situation. But you don’t necessarily need to stop running entirely.
I usually think it’s a good practice to stop running for about five days or so to figure out the issue and start with rehab activities. If it is getting better with resting and the treatment, you can keep a reduced running volume.
See more about this in the comeback routine chapter below.
Also nothing new here if you’ve read the article about the runner’s knee.
The basic RICE measures are also recommended for shin pain. Rest to give your bones, the tissue attached to it and your lower leg muscles time to recover.
Ice your shins to reduce pain and swelling and fight the inflammation. If the pain is really bad, use non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). But don’t use them just to be able to keep running! You will make the injury worse for sure.
The two other things that help are again stretching and also foam rolling. Check out the videos below to see how this can be done.
Depending on what caused your shin splints you might consider orthotics at least temporary. If you have a flat foot this might be of great help. To strengthen your foot muscles you can try getting into barefoot running. Some have seen great results even for reversing flat feet to a certain degree.
Minimal running is something to get really slowly into if you’re not used to it. Start with a half mile at a time and build up from there.
As always if you’re not sure, go see a doctor!
Luckily running is not the only endurance sport and there are many things you can do to keep your cardiovascular fitness at more or less the same level while you are recovering from shin splints.
Typically runners go cycling as this also keeps your leg muscles on track. I suggest you keep it to road cycling and don’t jump around with your mountain bike and stress your shins even more.
Also swimming is a great opportunity to stay fit but of course you need to have a nearby pool, lake or live by the sea.
If the surroundings you live in and your budget allow it, cross-country skiing or sky mountaineering are also great to stay healthy.
As always, the time during an injury is great to build a base for your further running. Strengthen your core, sort out any muscular dysbalances in your hips and legs and develop a regular foam rolling and stretching routine.
Also keep learning and read everything about running you can find, watch a nice running movie and look for some running related podcasts.
Nothing new here as well. Make sure you get back into running slowly!
Start out with a slow and easy run. Run easy around your block. If you don’t feel any pain, run another round. Limit it to a 5k for the first run. Replace a cross training/recovery session with a run each week. If that works add some intensity again in your workouts.
Keep doing the rehab activities that worked. Don’t just stop stretching and foam rolling just because your first runs were pain-free. Learn from the injury and make everything so it doesn’t come back.
There are many reasons that can lead to shin splints. For example biomechanical issues (flat feet or high arches) that you have to sort out with a doctor and maybe the use of insoles.
Most often however shin splints occur for beginning long distance runners or if you change your training dramatically. Don’t increase your weekly mileage by more than 10% and be careful with running on uneven ground and on hard surfaces like concrete.
Have a look at your stride and your posture when running. Get yourself filmed from different angles. Your body should be always upright and you should land on your fore to midfoot right below your center of mass.
Also don’t overuse your running shoes. Especially if you use supporting and cushioned shoes, change them every 500k.
And last but not least incorporate some habits into your running like stretching, strength training and cross training. Make every third week a recovery week with cutting back mileage and a focus on proper recovery.
To wrap up this post on shin splints, I’ll encourage you to check out these additional resources on running injuries.