Last Updated on February 21, 2022 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
As a running coach, it is my goal to help runners increase their mileage and speed without experiencing injuries. That said, aches and pains are sometimes, unfortunately, part of the running territory for a number of reasons. One of the more common complaints I hear from runners, especially newer runners, is shin pain. Or, a condition more commonly referred to as shin splints.
Running with shin pain can vary from a dull ache to a completely debilitating pain keeping you from completing workouts. The good news is that shin splints can also be treated and prevented, and do not have to be a chronic issue that keeps you from running.
Before we talk about how to prevent and treat shin pain in runners, let’s talk about what shin splints are, and what causes them in the first place.
What Are Shin Splints?
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.
What Causes Shin Splints?
Pain in the shins, for runners, is commonly due to:
- poor running form
- an overuse injury (too much, too soon)
- running in the wrong shoes
Shin splints may result in swelling, weakness, numbness, and may be a constant or intermittent pain. While again, shin pain is 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, and whether or not you should be running with shin splints.
What are the Risks of Running with Shin Pain?
Even though shin splints are common, running through them is not necessarily advised. As mentioned, chronic pain that doesn’t go away can be the sign of something more serious, such as a potential fracture or compartment syndrome. If this is the case, running through the pain could only worsen these injuries, eventually sidelining you for much longer.
Further, running with shin pain can often unknowingly cause us to change our running form and gait. This ultimately may cause other injuries as the kinetic chain begins to break down.
In short: don’t ignore pain. It’s your bodies way of letting you know “hey, something isn’t right here!”
Shin Splints Treatment for Runners
So, you have shin splints. What a pain in the…shins. Here’s what you can do to hopefully expedite healing and get back to running pain free.
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.
Cutback on Mileage (and/or Crosstrain)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Other options include foods with anti inflammatory properties, such as turmeric, garlic, and ginger.
As always, check with your physician before beginning any new medication, and use all medications as directed.
How to Prevent Shin Splints When Running
So, you’ve struggled with shin splints in the past, and want to prevent ever suffering from shin pain due to running again. Or maybe you’ve been lucky enough to never suffer from shin splints, and want to do everything you can to prevent them. Here’s what you need to know:
Check your Running 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 over-striding 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.
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. If you’re brand new, you may find my “Learn to Love to Run” program for beginners helpful!
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.
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.
Here are a few examples of strength exercises to prevent shin splints you can do at home:
- 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.
- 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.
Find the Correct Running Shoe and/or Insert for You
The wrong shoe could absolutely be a cause of shin splint pain. Believe it or not, not all running shoes are created equally – and not all running shoes work for every runner. 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.
How to Run With Shin Splints
The simple answer to the question of how to run with shin splints is: you don’t. I’ll emphasize that pain is our body’s way of letting us know that something isn’t right, and we should stop.
If you are experiencing sharp, chronic shin pain that doesn’t go away with rest, I highly recommend seeing a medical specialist for a diagnosis and treatment plan.
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.