Aside from the dreaded side stitch and uncomfortable chafing, shin splints are one of the biggest pains for a runner to get mid-stride. They’re mega frustrating and can be debilitating—especially when they’re intense enough to make stop your run before your favorite Drake track ever even comes on. Concentrated in the front of the leg along the tibia bone, the nagging pain can present itself both during and after exercise.
“The tibia (shin bone) and surrounding tissues need time to adapt and rebuild after the heavy demand and subsequent tissue breakdown that occurs after running,” says Blake Dircksen, CSCS and DPT at Bespoke Treatments in New York City. “Shin splints are caused by an imbalance between tissue demands and tissue capacity—in other words, doing too much too soon.”
Good news: they’re highly preventable. Here, pros share everything you need to know about shin splints, from how to prevent shin splints to what to do once they've set in.
What is a shin splint?
If you've ever had a shin splint, you likely know what it feels like: a sharp, shooting pain up the front side of your leg that feels excruciating every time you take a step. But what exactly is going on down there? "Shin splints, medically known as medial tibial stress syndrome is a painful condition that runs along the anterior portion of your tibia, or shin bones," says John Gallucci, Jr., PT, DPT and CEO of Jagone Physical Therapy. "Shin splints usually occur following repetitive trauma to the connective muscle tissue surrounding the tibia. This muscle tissue breaks down, becomes inflamed and in the healing, process forms scar tissue where one of the calf muscles adheres to the tibia, which produces pain and tightness."
What causes shin splints?
1. Training load
Shin splints are commonly referred to as an "overuse injury," and it's for good reason. "They can present in athletes who do not gradually progress their workload or mileage or abruptly change the surface that they are working out on, such as switching from running on grass to concrete," says Dr. Gallucci. In other words? Be careful how—and how often—you're stepping.
2. Flat feet
Flat feet are characterized by fallen arches and an over pronation of the foot, which Dr. Gallucci says "can causes added stress on the medial aspect of your shin bone." This, he explains, can lead to shin splints, particularly if you aren't wearing the right running shoe.
3. Wearing worn-out shoes
Your running shoes are meant to be replaced every six months (or 300-500 miles), and wearing them for too long can wind up being painful for your shins. "Running on worn shoes places more stress on the lower leg and hips due to a lessened shock absorbency in the shoe," says Dr. Gallucci.
4. Running the same route
If you're logging the same exact three miler every day, your shins may suffer. "Excessive stress can be placed on one leg from running on cambered roads or always running the same route," says Dr. Gallucci. "Roads are cambered, or arched, to help with drainage of water but running on these roads everyday will place much more stress on the leg or hip." Use this as an excuse to mix things up regularly.
How to prevent shin splints
1. Train smart
Just like performance on race day, the way a runner trains plays a huge factor on whether or not they experience shin splints, as well as how to prevent shin splints. The first strategy to side-stepping the discomfort? Avoid large spikes in the variables of your training. “This could be anything from the number of runs per week, the intensity of your runs, hilly running, or total mileage,” explains Dirksen. “Training should be progressive, tactful, and without throwing too many of those variables in at the same time.”
2. Pay attention to how you’re fueling your body
Your nutrition also plays a factor in how your body responds during exercise. It’s incredibly important that runners monitor their calcium and vitamin D intake for overall bone health, suggests Dircksen. The American Bone Health Association suggests 1,000mg of calcium and 600mg of vitamin D daily.
3. Don’t overwear your sneakers
There’s nothing like a great pair of sneakers that help you channel your inner Superwoman. But most styles lose their oomph (read: the foam in the sole starts to break down) after a while. “Make sure your shoes are still in good form,” says Dircksen. “Having two to three pairs to cycle through regularly is ideal.”
4. Make time to stretch
Soft tissue—including everything from tendons, ligaments, and muscles to fascia—mobility is super important. “Find time to stretch and use mobility tools to work out tight areas,” says Dircksen. Not sure where to get started? Here is everything you need to know on the right way to foam roll, and some tips for stretching with a massage ball.
How to treat shin splints
The most important thing you can do to treat shin splints is to give your legs some much-needed time off. "Due to the inflammatory nature of shin splints we must give our bodies time to heal properly as to not aggravate the condition further," says Dr. Gallucci. So use this as an excuse to take a few days away from your regular run routine.
2. Ice Massage
Consider adding some ice into your recovery routine, and treating yourself to an at-home massage. Move the ice in a circular pattern over the pained area for five minutes, which Dr. Gallucci says will " aid in breaking up the painful adhesions and will reduce inflammation."
Just as stretching can help prevent shin splints, it can also treat them once they've set in. Stretch your Achilles tendon and calf muscle by standing on a step and letting your heels drop down, or by bringing your toe up against a wall and leaning in. Target the anterior muscles in your leg by sitting with your legs stretched out in front of you, and pointing your toes toward the ground.
While you want to stay away from any weight-bearing exercises when you're dealing with shin splints (ahem, running), there are a few worth doing that can help heal the situation. Dr. Gallucci suggests tracing the alphabet with your toes to increase your range of motion and strengthen the muscles in your leg, or doing calf raises and heel walks. Just be sure to take breaks if you start to feel any discomfort so as not to make the splints any worse.
If running isn't an option but you still want to get in a good cardio workout, Dr. Gallucci recommends cross-training on the bike or in the pool to keep up your strength without having to put any added stress on your legs.
Also, if you're looking for ways to not be sore after your run and let's be honest, who isn't, try these trainer-approved methods. And here's a 20-minute workout to steal from Jenna Dewan on your off-day.
Updated March 24, 2020
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