No, You Really Shouldn’t Run Through Shin Splints. Here Are 3 Major Reasons Why

Photo: Getty Images/ Tempura
Shin splints can throw a wrench in your running plans. And that's equally frustrating whether you're full-on training for a race or just looking forward to clearing your mind on a leisurely 5K.

When that all-too-familiar pang in your shins strikes the moment you hit the pavement, it might be tempting to try to ignore it for the sake of salvaging your run. But running with shin splints isn't the smartest idea.

Here, experts explain why running through shin splints can only make matters worse.

Experts In This Article

First things first: What are shin splints?

Before we get to why you shouldn't run with shin splints, we need a solid understanding of what shin splints actually are.

Shin splints, formally known as medial tibial stress syndrome, occur due to repetitive stress on the shinbone (tibia) and the tissues that attach the muscles to the bone, says board-certified podiatric surgeon Miguel Cunha, DPM, founder of Gotham Footcare in New York City.

Shin splints feel like pain or soreness in the middle of your tibia, and that discomfort is usually triggered by running or exercising. Sometimes, you may also notice mild swelling in the area or that your shins feel tender to the touch, says Sarah Bair-Cross, ATC, a certified athletic trainer for Brooks Beasts.

Causes of shin splints

Shin splints are an overuse injury. Whether you’re new to running, just getting back into it, or have been running for a while, shin splints can strike when there's stress on the tissues surrounding the shin. There are many reasons this can happen, but Bair-Cross says some of the most common causes are:

  • Running too much or too often relative to your recent training
  • Improper running form
  • Wearing old or unsupportive sneakers
  • Anatomical issues (such as flat feet)
  • Biomechanical weaknesses (such as lack of ankle range of motion, medial knee collapse, improper firing, or glute weakness)

Can you run through shin splints?

Both Dr. Cunha and Bair-Cross say running with shin splints isn't a good idea.

"I wouldn’t recommend running with shin splints because it can exacerbate the condition and lead to other injuries such as ligament sprains, tendon ruptures, and fractures," Dr. Cunha says.

Worst-case scenario, you can end up with a more serious injury, such as:

1. Stress fractures

Stress fractures are tiny breaks in the bone caused by repetitive stress or overuse. Shin splints can cause repetitive stress of the tibia which can result in inflammation and weakening of the tibia, making it more susceptible to fracturing, Dr. Cunha says. A stress fracture of the tibia can take up to six to eight weeks to heal (depending on the severity), per the Cleveland Clinic.

2. Tendonitis and ligament sprains in other parts of the body

When you have shin splints, it's not uncommon to change the way you run to try to ease the pain in your shins. This can cause other parts of your legs and feet to overcompensate, which puts these areas at risk for overuse.

"This can lead to tendonitis of some muscles as they become overworked," Dr. Cunha says, adding that it can also lead to other muscles becoming weaker as they're used less. What's more, "overcompensation can balance issues that can lead to injuries such as ligament sprains and can also place stress on joints such as knees and hips."

3. Compartment syndrome

Running with shin splints can lead to chronic shin splints that may lead to even worse symptoms than you started with—and that also means a longer recovery time.

Over time and in severe cases, this can lead to compartment syndrome, "where pressure builds up within the muscles in the leg causing pain so severe that surgery may be necessary," Dr. Cunha says. In case you were curious, this surgery, called a fasciotomy, involves cutting the rigid tissue to relieve pressure.

“I wouldn’t recommend running with shin splints because it can exacerbate the condition and lead to other injuries such as ligament sprains, tendon ruptures, and fractures.” —Miguel Cunha, DPM

What to do when you have shin splints

If you're dealing with nagging shin splints, both Dr. Cunha and Bair-Cross recommend the tried-and-true RICE method: rest, ice, compression, and elevation.

Emphasis on the "rest" part: "I recommend taking a few days to off-load and reset at first," Bair-Cross says. This could be in the form of taking a few full-on rest days, or just switching your type of exercise to something less impactful, like biking or swimming.

Bair-Cross also recommends checking in with three areas: Soft tissue elasticity (are the muscles surrounding the shin tight?), joint mobility (are the ankles or knees or hips lacking range of motion?), and muscle activation (are the muscles needed to run being recruited?).

If you can check in with an athletic trainer, physical therapist, chiropractor, or another medical professional, great—but there are also ways to do this if you're navigating this alone.

First off, grab a foam roller. "Take a few broad passes over the major muscle groups (calves, hamstrings, and quads), see if you find some tight spots, and spend about 30 extra seconds on those," Bair-Cross says. This can loosen up the muscle tissue and bring blood flow to the area.

You can also incorporate a stretching routine after you run or foam roll.

To work on your joint mobility, Bair-Cross recommends active ankle, knee, or hip movements before you run—try ankle pumps for the foot, standing knees over toes for the knee and ankle, and leg swings for the hip.

To activate your muscles, try some pre-run warm-up drills like squats, lateral band walks, or calf raises.

Injuries can occur before symptoms arise, according to a 2022 Cureus report, so prioritizing rest, recovery, and warm-ups is key.

How to ease back into running after recovering from shin splints

Okay, so you took some time to rest and recover, and now you're feeling like your legs are ready to log miles. Sweet, now you can transition to a run-walk progression every other day. Bair-Cross recommends starting with a three-minute walk followed by a two-minute run and doing that for two or three repetitions. Then, take the following day to rest or do a cross-training workout.

Check-in with yourself: If you had pain in that first run, take a little more downtime or start with something shorter. If you're pain-free, you can slowly increase your load by no more than 10 percent each run. This could be in the form of increasing the length of time spent walking or running or by upping the number of repetitions you perform. If at any point you start feeling pain again, back it down to where you were at in your previous run or take a few more days of cross-training in between your runs, Bair-Cross says.

The pain usually goes away when you stop running. But if it becomes increasingly sharper—or worse, if you notice aching while at rest—that's your cue to visit your doctor.

The bottom line: Should you run with shin splints?

Plain and simple: No, you shouldn't. Severe shin splints can lead to more serious injuries (and can further delay the next time you log miles). Take a break from running and focus on recovery before hitting the pavement again. You don't have to stay off your feet completely—feel free to switch to low-impact activities, like cycling or swimming—but you'll want to avoid running at least for at least a few days until the pain subsides.

You'll also want to get to the root cause of your shin splints, especially if they're recurring. Oftentimes, shin splints are caused by wearing old or unsupportive running shoes, and you may find your pain decreases with a simple change in footwear, Bair-Cross says. "It’s important to wear appropriate running shoes that offer adequate arch support and shock absorption to prevent stress on the tibia," Dr. Cunha says.

It's also a good idea to visit a podiatrist, who can evaluate any gait issues that may be triggering your shin splints. "A podiatrist can make custom orthotics made for your shoes to provide optimal support and structural alignment of your feet and help prevent injury and improve performance," Dr. Cunha says.

The Wellness Intel You Need—Without the BS You Don't
Sign up today to have the latest (and greatest) well-being news and expert-approved tips delivered straight to your inbox.

Loading More Posts...