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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, running with 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, and whether or not you should be running with shin splints.
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.
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.
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.**
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.
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.