If you want to get rid of shin splints, you have come to the right place. Shin splints are very common with new runners or runners who increase their workout intensity or volume before their legs are ready. They are one of the most common overuse injuries in runners.
In this article, I discuss what shin splints are, what are the symptoms of shin splints, what causes them and how to get rid of shin splints so they don’t come back. All from a running coach perspective.
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- What are Shin Splints?
- What are the Symptoms of Shin Splints in Runners?
- What Causes Shin Splints in Runners?
- How Do I Get Rid of Shin Splints?
- Can Shoes or Orthotics Help with Shin Splints?
- How to Return to Running after Shin Splints
What are Shin Splints?
Shin splints is an overuse injury that can be quite painful and equally frustrating.
Pain typically occurs when there is inflammation in the muscles, tendons and bone tissue surrounding your tibia. More specifically, where the tendons attach to the bone.
The tibia is one of two main bones just below your knee and above your foot. Most of us frequently refer to it as our shin bone.
Along the tibia are two primary muscles, the tibialis anterior muscle, and the tibialis posterior muscle.
The tibialis anterior muscle is the primary muscle that lifts or lowers your foot. The tibialis posterior muscle helps with supporting the foot during the weight-bearing phase of your foot strike as your foot naturally pronates to absorb impact.
A weak tibialis posterior muscle can lead to arch collapse during the weight-bearing part of your foot strike and places additional stress on your lower leg.
Since running is a high impact activity, these two muscles, their tendons and the bone tissue that they connect to, get inflamed and painful when we try to do too much before our body has adapted to running or the new onset of increased activity.
What are the Symptoms of Shin Splints in Runners?
When experiencing shin splint pain, the pain is most often felt on the front or inner edge of your shin. If it is more towards the front or inside-front, it is most likely Anterior Tibial Stress Syndrome or Anterior Shin Splints.
If pain presents more to the inside and back, it is most likely Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome or Posterior Shin Splints.
Shin splints or stress fracture?
Shin splint pain often feels like tiny razors digging into your bone. Early signs of shin splints often include a dull or throbbing pain sensation in the general areas mentioned above.
When checking for shin splints, you can often press and feel a sore spot when pressing around the area.
Shin splint pain usually starts shortly after starting a run and can last throughout the run and afterward. Often, the pain becomes severe enough, it forces you to stop running.
It is important to note, that other things can contribute to shin pain. If pain does not resolve fully or does not show signs of improvement after a few days to a week of rest and cutting back on running, or if your pain is extreme, shows signs of swelling, then you should see your doctor and have your lower leg examined.
Overuse injuries like stress fractures, tendonitis, and a few other issues can feel similar to shin splint pain.
When chronic inflammation occurs, shin splints can progress into tendonitis, larger tears, or even stress fractures as the bone starts to break down.
Remember, I am a running coach, not a medical doctor so if you are not sure what you have, get it checked out.
What Causes Shin Splints in Runners?
Shin splints are first and foremost an overuse injury.
Shin splints can be aggravated by other things, like poor footwear, having flat feet or poor foot anatomy.
Shin splints primarily come on due to sudden changes in activity level that increases stress on your bone and tendons. As your muscles get used repetitively over and over again as you run, the muscles pull on the tendons and can start to microscopically tear and inflame where the tendons are attaching to the bone.
Shin Splints in New Runners
Shin splints are most common in new runners or runners who are coming back after a long layoff.
New runners are often newly motivated and often find themselves doing too much, too early because of this new-found motivation to get in shape.
The most common cause of shin splints in new runners is running day after day with little to no rest days, or running further that you are ready for.
Running too much or overdoing it early on will systematically tear your tissues down.
If your body is not prepared to handle the impact and that impact is around the shin area, then shin splints or stress fractures can occur.
Shin Splints in Experienced Runners
Experienced runners are also prone to shin splints, although it is less common. For example, if you are used to running 3 miles per day, 3 times per week and suddenly increase running to 6 days per week, then you might experience pain in your shins due to the sudden onset of volume.
And, a sudden increase in intensity, for example suddenly adding hills or track workouts can also be problematic for experienced runners.
Even changes of surface (for example, sudden transfer from treadmill to pavement running or vice versa) can also contribute to shin splints.
How Do I Get Rid of Shin Splints?
Getting rid of Shin Splints is a fairly straightforward process. First and foremost, we need to apply the RICE principle. RICE is a common protocol for treating overuse injuries in runners and other athletes.
Then, and only then do we work on flexibility and strength training once the injury has had a chance to heal.
“Running through shin splints, or going straight to flexibility and strength training before you have had a chance to start the healing process is a common mistake.”
Using RICE to Treat Shin Splints
Apply the RICE Protocol (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation)
Since shin splints are an overuse injury, we need to first dramatically reduce the level of activity. This usually means taking a few days off from running or incorporating other forms of low impact cross-training like swimming or cycling.
In more experienced runners, simply taking a day or two off and then walking a day or two, followed by a slow, gradual ramp-up is usually enough to get over shin splints.
For beginners, it may require additional time off, followed by a gradual comeback through run/walk along with flexibility and strength training to help build up your muscle strength and flexibility.
A strong muscle is an injury resistance muscle and will help your body absorb the impacts from running. A flexible muscle will help reduce the tension applied to the tendons and bones.
Inflammation, especially right after exercise or injury can be reduced by frequent icing. Use cold packs or baggies filled with ice and apply to the area off and on throughout the day.
Never apply ice directly to the skin. Use a hand towel as a barrier between the ice and your skin.
Compression socks after exercise can help, but often is not needed. Compression often helps reduce inflammation or additional swelling but often just makes you feel better due to increased circulation and pushing lymphatic fluids out of the area.
With shin splints, I don’t feel this is as useful. Shin splints rarely have swelling.
Use Strength Training and Flexibility Exercises to Get Rid of Shin Splints
Light stretching and simple strength training exercises can help you increase flexibility and build strength that will help strengthen the area and help your body better absorb the impact from running.
As a certified running coach and certified personal trainer, I work with runners all the time who benefit from strength training.
Some of my favorite exercises to get rid of shin splints involves single leg balance and stability drills, calf stretches, calf stretches, heel drops and heel raises. I also like hamstring stretches, hops and jumps, BOSU ball exercises.
Before you introduce stretching and strength training, please give your legs a few days to start the healing process, and reduce inflammation.
Another important step is to cut your training volume back by 50% or more and slowly work your way back up.
DO NOT RUN THROUGH SHIN SPLINTS!
Can Shoes or Orthotics Help with Shin Splints?
The correct answer is maybe. While most advice on the topic is well-meaning and can sometimes be helpful, the reality is that shoes and orthotics rarely by themselves solve any running injury. They are nothing more than tools.
Orthotics can help if someone has really high arches or flat feet, but the vast majority of runners do not need them.
Using a temporarily orthotic has been helpful in some of the clients I coach. This is mainly as it helps to ‘temporarily’ remove the stress in the spot of injury so the overall load is lowered thus allowing your injury to heal.
For the same reason, a shoe change or new shoes may help. Most running shoes should be changed every 300-500 miles. Changing your shoes or adding an orthotic is worth a try but only after you have fixed your training issues and cut back your volume first.
How to Return to Running after Shin Splints
When returning to running after experiencing shin splints, the process must be methodical and slow. Before you resume running you should be pain-free for at least a few days to a week. Do not rush back. If your shin splints were severe, you may want to wait two weeks before your return.
When you return, start by doing a 10-15 minute dynamic warmup. You want to find exercises that slowly increase your heart rate and involve movement. This is not stretching where you stretch and hold. Lunges, High knees, squats, hip flexor stretches, jumping jacks, are just a few examples.
After your dynamic warmup, do some easy walk/run intervals.
If the pain returns, stop, take a rest day or two, then repeat the process. You may have to repeat this a few times until you see progress.
Once you can run/walk pain-free, then you can slowly resume back to your training volume starting from about 50% of your pre-injury volume and slowly increasing over the next few weeks until you are back to pre-injury volume.
Sometimes you can come back a little faster, but always pay attention as you run and stop if the pain returns.
If you made it through most a run before the pain returned, cut the run short, and try again in two days and run the distance just short of where the pain came on a couple of days before.
If you can maintain that distance without pain, slowly add in the additional distance for subsequent runs. Running through pain will only make your shin splints worse, or lead to more severe, chronic injury.
In the following video, Bob and Brad, two physical therapists with an awesome YouTube channel share their pro tips for getting rid of shin splints.
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Steve Carmichael is a running coach, sports performance coach, nutrition coach and has been a recreational runner for over 18 years. Steve holds multiple certifications as a certified running coach through the RRCA and USA Track and Field as well as he is a NASM certified personal trainer, and PN1-L1 certified nutrition coach.
Steve has been coaching since 2010 and has helped thousands of runners online and in the Central Ohio area maximize performance and run injury-free.