Shin Splints & Running: 10 Tips for Treatment and Prevention of Shin Pain

The first time I heard of shin splints was somewhere around middle school, when classmates would argue and plead with the gym teacher that “shin splints” were the reason they absolutely had to sit out of the mile run or any other sort of physical fitness test.  Now, many years later as a trainer and coach, I often hear clients tell me that they can’t run because they have or get shin splints.  While I doubt my clients are using the shin splints as an excuse to skip running, the truth is, shin splints can be debilitating.   The good news is they can also be treated and prevented, and do not have to be a chronic issue that keeps you from running (sorry to those of you who were looking to use it as an excuse).

Simply put, shin splints are a broad term used to describe a dull aching pain in the shin, or front of the lower half of the leg, and may affect beginner exercises and experienced athletes alike. Shin splints are in fact not a specific injury, but instead may be swelling, inflammation, or a symptom of a number of possible injuries. Commonly due to poor running form or an overuse injury, shin splints may result in swelling, weakness, numbness, and may be a constant or intermittent pain. While very common and often a minor issue, shin splints could possibly be the sign of a more serious injury.  Thus your disclaimer: I am not a doctor, so PLEASE visit your physician for proper diagnosis and treatment of your injuries.

Shin Splints

GENERAL TREATMENT

1. Rest

Arguably the most effective treatment for shin splint pain, resting your injury will allow any possible swelling to reduce, and the affected areas to begin healing.  Unexpected rest may be welcome for some, or miserable for others, depending on your training and running enthusiasm. Either way, when you are injured rest is essential.  So be sure to get enough.

2. Cross train/cut back mileage

Every die-hard runner’s least favorite words: cut back on mileage.   When battling an overuse injury (or any injury for that matter) cutting back on your weekly (daily, monthly, etc) mileage may be the most important factor on the road to recovery.  Since shin splints are often associated with the impact of running, try a low or non impact workout to replace running while you allow the inflammation of the shin splints to heal.  Try swimming or cycling for a great cardiovascular workout that is more forgiving to the shins.

3. Ice

Ice your shin for 10 to 15 minutes intermittently a few times throughout the day to help reduce swelling. If using an ice pack or bag of ice, be sure to place a layer, such as a towel or sports wrap, between your skin and the ice to prevent any damage to your skin from frostbite. Alternative suggestion: fill a small paper cup with water and place it in the freezer. Once frozen, peel away the top of the cup from the ice and use the ice to massage the shins. Keep the ice moving as to not damage the skin.

4. Compression

Compressing the shins with athletic tape, an athletic wrap,  compression sleeves or compression socks may help alleviate the pain of shin splints. Compressing the area results in less movement of the muscles of the lower leg, and may also help reduce swelling. Further, the compression and covering will help retain body heat, which allows for greater blood flow to the affected area, and may help speed up recovery.

5. Anti-inflammatory medications

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), such as ibuprofen or aspirin, will help reduce inflammation, and ease pain caused by shin splints.  Be aware of the fact that a number of studies show NSAIDS taken before or during exercise can cause kidney issues as well as other possibly dangerous damage to the body, so these drugs should be taken as pain relievers for recovery post exercise.  **As always, check with your physician before beginning any new medication, and use all medications as directed.**

PREVENTION

6. Check your Form

If you suffer chronic shin splints, consider having your form evaluated by a professional.  Heel striking is often a cause of frequent shin splints, as landing heel first causes overstriding which stretches the shin muscles, forcing them to work harder.  Further, heel striking causes excess impact to the lower legs, resulting in shin pain.  A professional can help analyze your running gait and landing pattern, as well as make suggestions on how to correct your form.

7. Gradually build mileage

Overuse injuries can pop up in a number of different forms, shin splints are just one of them.   Be sure to build your mileage up gradually to help prevent overuse injuries.  Better yet, if you are a beginner, follow a training plan to ensure you aren’t doing too much too soon.

8. Range of motion exercises / stretching

Stretching the muscles in the lower leg can help not only alleviate the symptoms of shin splints, but help strengthen the area to help prevent further injury. An example of a range of motion exercise: sit in a chair with your shoes off. Extend one leg out in front of you. Flex your toes and foot towards your shin, and then point them away. Repeat ten times, and then switch legs. Alternative suggestion: point and flex the toes towards and away the shin, while writing out the letters of the alphabet in the air with your big toe.

9. Strength Train

Many runners assume that in order to get better at running, they must run all of the time, and therefore completely skip strength training.  Not only is this thought process incorrect, it can actually result in injury.   If you are a runner, you need to strength train. I cannot stress that enough.   Since the cause of shin splints is often related to a weakness or overuse of the muscles in the lower legs, general strengthening of the leg and foot muscles will help to prevent shin splints.  For more specific suggestions, heck out these shin splint specific exercises from Runner’s World:

  • Toe Curls
    Stand with feet hip-width apart at the edge of a towel. With the toes of your left foot, gather the towel and slowly pull it toward you. Return to start and repeat with the other foot.
  • Monster Walks
    With feet shoulder-width apart, place a resistance band around your thighs and step forward and toward the right with your right leg. Bring your left leg up to meet your right, then step out toward the left. Then walk backward in the same way to return to the start. Repeat.
  • Heel Drop
    Stand on your toes on the edge of a step. Shift your weight to your right leg, take your left foot off the step, and lower your right heel down. Return to start, and then repeat with your left leg.
  • One-Legged Bridges
    Lie on your back with your arms out to the sides, knees bent, and feet flat on the floor. Squeeze your glutes to lift your hips up off the floor. Extend your left leg out and hold for 30 seconds (work up to 60-second holds), then lower it. Repeat with your other leg.

10.  Find the right shoe and/or insert

The wrong shoe could absolutely be a cause of shin splint pain.  Perhaps your shoe has too much support, or not enough.  Maybe your arches are high and you require an insert.  Or maybe your shoe is just too old and needs to be replaced.  Running in the shoe that is right for you might make the world of difference when it comes to shin splints, so visit your local running store and see if the professional staff can help point you in the right direction.

 *Important Note:*

There is no specific cure, or average healing time for shin splints. As previously mentioned, shin splints are a symptom of a variety of possible injuries, thus healing time and treatment will vary from person to person. Try all or any combination of these treatments to help alleviate your shin splint pain. If you are unable or find relief, or notice symptoms worsening, please consult your physician for further treatment suggestions.

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Comments

  1. says

    I’ve never gotten “shin splints” from running (so far), but I would always get those pains from walking a lot during vacations or trips to the city where we would walk all day. But then I started wearing compression socks during those trips and the pains never last now!

  2. says

    I have had issue with shin splints (among other things) and have found that getting inserts really helped! My hubby is a chiro and has been extremely helpful in alleviating my issues with therapy as well!

  3. says

    i had them a couple times when i first started running and they are a pain. I swam and cycled as cross training and got in the habit of writing my A,B,C’s with my foot every night and Im telling you it stretches everything. Great post.

  4. says

    I’ve suffered with shin splints on and off since high school, so about 20 years!! I’ve used many of these tactics, especially rest, ice and cross training to treat them but could never find the underlying cause. Last year I was at my local running store talking with the owner when he noticed how high my arches were and suspected inserts might be the missing link. Magic! I trained for a half marathon last year with them and had no shin splints. I feel like it was a miracle!

  5. says

    I got shin splints a few times when I first began running many many many years ago. I am sure it was because I tried to increase my distance too quickly. I remember putting bags of frozen peas on them to ease the pain! Great tips and information here.

  6. says

    These are all great tips. I’ve had shin splints since high school XC that just have never gone away. No matter if I take time off, come back slowly, ice, etc. I’ll always have shin pain. Probably because my feet are pancake flat.

    One thing that has helped me in the past is definitely the toe pointing exercises. To add on to that, you can loop a resistance band around your foot and point toes up and down (flexing), then out to one side, then out to the other side, in order to work all angles of the ankle and anterior tibialis.

    • says

      I’m so sorry to hear you are a chronic shin splint sufferer! Thank you for the last suggestion, I will have to try that one and share with my clients!

    • says

      I admit when I first started running back in 2007, I never even considered strength training. Now as a fitness professional, I find I strength train MORE than I run, and I’m far stronger (and faster) because of it. It amazes me as well that people don’t consider strength training for injury prevention, but more so it amazes me that people (runners specifically) don’t consider strength training as a NECESSITY for fitness and overall well being!

  7. says

    Can we shout this from the rooftops –> “If you are a runner, you need to strength train. I cannot stress that enough.” YES!! And great post for those who have struggled with shin splits!!

    • says

      I too was guilty of doing too much, too soon, and ended up with a slew of injuries. It’s SO HARD to convince enthusiastic new runners that they NEED to hold back in the beginning!

  8. says

    I used to suffer from chronic shin splints in high school. They were extremely painful and made me hesitant to start running as an adult. I have found that conditioning and stretching have helped me eliminate them.

    • says

      It’s a shame more runners don’t do preventative exercises! Do you find they have helped you prevent recurring injuries with the Achilles, knee & hips?

    • says

      I think catching it early is certainly the key! I know so many people who run through the early stages of pain and then it becomes full blown inflammation.

  9. says

    Shin Splints are the absolute worst. I struggled with them in college due to overtraining during winter dryland training for rowing. Mine got so bad I ended up with a stress fracture. Your tips for prevention are awesome. I have found that cross training and proper shoes are so important!

  10. says

    I remember being terrified of getting the dreaded shin splints! But I don’t think that I’ve actually had them? These are great tips in general for staying healthy when running. And OMG I hate monster walks! :-)

    • says

      The only time I ever had them was back in high school when I played soccer. In retrospect I wonder if it was because our coach used to make us run in our cleats on pavement for long distances. That couldn’t be good for the shins!

  11. says

    This is such a great post! When I was training for my half marathon last year, I definitely felt a bit of strain on my shins, though they never escalated to shin splints. Definitely keep these tips handy in case I need them some day!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Your New Year’s resolution was to start running, and it was going just fine — until those pesky shin splints popped up. Usually a result of poor form or overuse, shin pain can make it feel nearly impossible to log miles. Find out what you can do to alleviate that pain now — and how to prevent this nagging injury from popping up again in the future. (Relentless Forward Commotion) […]