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What are shin splints when running? 7 prevention tips + common causes

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Shin splints when running are the bane of many runners.

They aren’t normally serious, but they can be a very annoying pain and if left untreated, can get slowly worse. 

They’re common in people who do a lot of running or other activities that involve repeatedly putting on weight on the legs, such as tennis or basketball. 

If you struggle with shin splints when running, this guide will offer some tips to help prevent them in the future.

In this guide we’ll explore:

  • What are shin splints?
  • What are the symptoms of shin splints when running?
  • What causes shin splints when running?
  • How to treat shin splints
  • When can I start running again after shin splints?
  • How to prevent shin splints when running: 7 simple tips

Ready?

Let’s go!

shin splints when running

What are shin splints?

Shin splints (otherwise known as medial tibial stress syndrome) is the name for the pain that occurs in the shins or at the front of your lower legs after running or exercise. 

The pain tends to begin soon after running or starting exercise. 

Whilst the pain may be dull and achy to begin with, after time can become increasingly sharp or severe, eventually stopping you from exercising. 

It’s important to rest as soon as you start to feel pain because if you try and exercise through the pain, it could eventually become chronic and continue even when you’re resting. 

Related: How to prevent knee pain when running

What are the symptoms of shin splints when running?

If you think you have shin splints there are few a signs and symptoms to look out for.

Here are the signs and symptoms of shin splints when running:

  • Pain in the shin bones which runs down the front of your lower legs
  • Swelling and inflammation around the shin bones
  • Mild swelling in your lower leg
  • Tenderness and soreness or pain along the inner side of your shin bone

If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s advisable to seek advice from your GP as it could be an underlying sign of a stress fracture.

Related: IT band syndrome: Signs, symptoms and treatment

shin splints when running

What causes shin splints when running?

No one knows what causes shin splints exactly, but there are several things that are thought to cause shin splints.

A 2013 study found that female gender, previous history of shin splints, fewer years of running experience, increased body mass index, and increased external rotation hip range of motion in males are all significantly associated with an increased risk of developing shin splints.

Here are some common causes of shin splints:

  • A sudden change in activity levels can cause the pain or make the pain worse. 
  • Running on hard or uneven surfaces.
  • Tight calf muscles, weak ankles and a tight Achilles tendon are also thought to contribute to shin splint pain. 
  • Footstrike is a commonly debated component of running which has links with shin splints.

Running in worn out trainers that do not support your feet is also thought to be a common cause of shin splints.

If you also have a pair of old, worn running shoes, then it may be a sign to buy a new pair that support your feet properly.

Check out my guide on how to choose the right running shoes.

How to treat shin splints

Shin splints can usually be treated at home.

The first step is to rest. Stop running for at least two to three weeks then gradually start to reintroduce running to your normal schedule.

The next step is to hold an ice pack against your shins. A bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel works well too.

Hold the ice pack against your shins for around 10 minutes every few hours for the first few days. This will help with the swelling and inflammation.

In terms of pain relief, over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen can help to relieve the pain.

If you do not want to completely stop all forms of exercise during treatment, then switch to low impact activities like cycling and swimming. 

Yoga is also a good form of cross training for runners as it helps with flexibility – something that runners don’t work on enough!

It also doesn’t put too much pressure on your shins. 

When can I start running again after shin splints?

You can start returning to running once the pain has gone and the swelling and inflammation has gone down.

Be sure not to increase your activity levels too soon when you return to running.

If in doubt, follow a beginner training plan or a training plan suitable for someone returning from injury.

The best judge of all is you – your body!

If it just doesn’t feel right when you’re running, stop, slow down and take it step by step.

You can also follow my simple tips on how to start running after after a long break to make your return to running that much easier.  

You don’t want to risk the pain coming back again, so go easy on yourself!

shin splints when running

How to prevent shin splints when running

There are a number of ways to help prevent shin splints. 

#1 Wear running shoes that cushion and support your feet

Visit your local specialist running shoe store and ask for advice on the best shoes for your feet.

They will ask you questions to help determine the best type of shoe for you.

They may also ask you to do a gait analysis which is basically a way of helping you to determine which running shoe is right for you.

#2 Run on soft, grassy surfaces where possible

If you’re used to running on hard, concrete like surfaces, try and run on softer surfaces like playing fields where possible.

#3 Follow a training plan suitable for your experience and fitness levels

If you’re a beginner runner, the Couch to 5k training plan is a great way to start. You can take it in your stride and re do a week if necessary.

#4 Cross train

Activities like cycling, swimming and yoga are all great cross training activities for runners. These are all low impact and push your body in different ways.

#5 Improve your strength and flexibility

Yoga is a great option for improving flexibility, whilst strength training, such as bodyweight or free weight exercises, can go a long way to make your muscles and joints stronger. 

Read my guide on strength training for runners for more information.

#6 Warm up before each run

A proper warm up helps to prepare your body for the run ahead by mobilising your joints and muscles.

It’s also a great way to get you in the right frame of mind for your run.

The warm up should raise your heart rate but not leave you exhausted before the run.

It’s also a good idea to focus on dynamic stretches that stretch out your calves and the front of your legs. 

#7 Speak to a healthcare professional or a foot specialist

If you’re really struggling with pain, speak with a healthcare professional or a local foot specialist (podiatrist).

They can help to recommend treatment plans for you, including supportive insoles in your shoes. 

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