There are no “good” injuries that you can suffer as a runner, but even amid the nasty selection of common running injuries that afflict the committed pavement pounder, shin splints stand out as particularly unpleasant.
Shin splints can derail a running training plan ahead of an event, and it’s an injury that’s tough to treat – and, of course, can be seriously painful – so your best bet is trying to stop it from arising.
As with many other running injuries, such as runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis and achilles tendonitis, shin splints often arise as a result of overuse and frequently appear during marathon training, when you increase the amount and intensity of running you do.
Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to prevent shin splints, but one major step you can take to reduce your risk is to build up your training load gradually, and consider moving some of your runs off hard surfaces if possible. In particular, the easy runs on your training schedule are great to do on trails, since you’ll have no concerns about pace and can enjoy your surroundings while giving the legs a break from paved surfaces.
You can also try these exercises to minimise the risk of shin splints shared with us by a physiotherapist.
For more advice on how to avoid succumbing to shin splints, along with information on the symptoms and treatment options, we spoke to Stephen Parkinson, who was a health adviser at Bupa UK at the time of the interview.
Stephen Parkinson is the head of health and wellbeing at TP Health and a former health adviser for Bupa UK. He has a degree in sports science and German, a masters in sports psychology, and is also a Level 2-qualified football coach.
What are shin splints?
“Shin splints is a general term used to describe pain along your shin bone – your tibia – that usually develops or gets worse when you exercise, particularly when running,” says Parkinson.
“If you have shin splints, the pain may be down the front or sides of your shin. It’s caused by damage to the muscles, tendons or bone tissue around your shin.”
What are the symptoms of shin splints?
As anyone who has suffered from shin splints will tell you, it’s not a subtle injury. You’re more than likely to feel serious pain.
“The pain usually happens when you’re exercising and may, at first, ease off during your session,” says Parkinson.
“However, if it becomes too severe to continue, you need to stop. The pain may ease when you stop exercising, only to come back later. If your shin splints are particularly severe, you may have pain when you’re resting. Sometimes, you may also have mild swelling around the area that’s painful.”
What causes shin splints?
Myriad causes could be behind shin splints, ranging from a big increase in your activity levels to weak muscles in the legs. Parkinson lists the potential causes here, so check carefully to ensure you’re giving yourself the best shot at staying shin splints-free.
- A change in your activity level, such as starting a new exercise plan or suddenly increasing the distance or pace you run
- Running on hard or uneven surfaces
- Wearing poorly fitting or worn-out trainers that don’t cushion and support your feet properly
- Being overweight
- Having flat feet or feet that roll inwards (known as over-pronation)
- Having tight calf muscles, weak ankles or a tight achilles tendon (the band of tissue connecting the heel to the calf muscle)
- Poor core stability
- Tight calf muscles and hamstrings
- Weak quadriceps or foot arch muscles
- Medial tibial stress syndrome (stress on your shin bone) – it’s thought that repeated stress on your bone may cause injury to the bone tissue and the periosteum, the membrane covering it
- Stress fractures – small breaks in your tibia, caused by stress on the bone
- Muscle strain, where you overstretch certain muscles in the front of your leg and damage some of the muscle fibres
- Tendon dysfunction – general overloading of the tendon leading to changes that cause swelling and pain
How long will shin splints stop you running for?
Even if it’s frustrating, it’s key to rest when you first feel shin splints, because exacerbating the problem could rule you out for months.
“Stop running and rest for a few weeks,” says Parkinson. “If you have a stress fracture, this can take up to 12 weeks to heal properly. You can keep yourself fit during this time by doing other activities which don’t put strain on your legs, like swimming or a stationary bike.”
How do you treat shin splints?
“There’s plenty you can do yourself, particularly in mild cases,” says Parkinson.
“Use an ice-pack to help relieve the pain. Don’t apply it directly to your skin – wrap the ice-pack in a towel and hold it in place for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. You can repeat this several times a day if you need to.”
As you might expect, resting your legs is also an effective way to treat shin splints. You might be able to keep exercising during this spell, but in bad cases you can rule out running for up to three months.
“Stop running and rest for a few weeks,” say Parkinson. “Depending on the severity of the symptoms, you may not need to completely rest. Talk to a physiotherapist and discuss ways you can modify your exercises to help get you running again and prevent the condition recurring.
“If rest isn’t helping, a physiotherapist will be able to develop a training programme that lets you gradually increase your level of activity and helps you get back to your usual exercise regime.”
Stretching your calf, shin and hamstring muscles regularly, as well as strengthening your glutes, core and quads, will also help treat and prevent shin splints.
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How do you prevent shin splints?
So there’s plenty you can do to treat shin splints, but clearly it’s far better to avoid them altogether. Start by making sure you’ve got the right kit.
“Wearing the right gear is important,” says Parkinson. “Check your trainers are supportive enough. Specialist running shops can give you advice and information about your trainers. Orthotic insoles for your shoes may also help to improve the way you run.”
It’s also important to build up your activity gradually, and if you are having problems, consider moving your runs off-road.
“When you start exercising again, start slowly,” says Parkinson. “If you get shin splints again, stop the activity and rest for a few days before starting the exercise at a lower level of intensity. Build up the amount of exercise you’re doing gradually.
“It’s important to listen to your body, find a level of exercise that it can tolerate and slowly build on that, while allowing your shin enough time to heal.
“I’d advise running on a soft surface such as grass, rather than on roads.”
You should also be working on strengthening your glute muscles if you start running a lot, as well as stretching regularly. If problems persist, you could even take a look at changing your whole running style with the help of a physiotherapist.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.