If you’re a runner, you’ve probably suffered from them. Shin splints are the most common injury from which runners suffer, according to studies. (Also on that list is plantar fasciitis, which we addressed in this recent piece.) If you are one of the many athletes who deals with them on a regular basis, you know how problematic they can be.
Luckily, there are ways to treat — and even prevent — the painful affliction to keep you running longer and stronger. We sat down with two experts to get more details about shin splints, including why they happen and how to avoid them in the first place.
What are Shin Splints?
The scientific name is medial tibial stress syndrome. The physical experience is a dull pain in your shin bones that just doesn’t seem like it’s going away. The culprit isn’t your shin bones at all — shin splints are actually emanating from the muscles of your lower leg. These muscles are attached to the lining of the shin bone, and in order for them to work, they must contract and pull on that lining.
“As we repetitively use these muscles for running, the lining will become inflamed because of the tension put on the bone as the muscles are contracting,” explains Dr. Darrin Bright, a family physician at OhioHealth Hospitals and medical director for the Columbus Marathon and Capital City Half Marathon. “And that inflammation correlates to the pain we know as shin splints.
Runners and Shin Splints
While shin splints are the most common injury seen in the sport, runners aren’t any more susceptible to the ailment than other athletes. However, according to Denise Smith, a physical therapist and running technique specialist based in Crystal Lake, Illinois, some of us could be more likely to experience pain.
“New runners are especially prone to shin splints because they are participating in a new activity,” she says.
When someone is just getting into the sport, his or her shin muscles aren’t yet strong enough to withstand the repeated use. And while this injury may be an occupational hazard for runners, you’re likely not doomed to experience shin pain for the rest of your running life.
Avoiding the Pain
Fortunately, there are a number of steps runners can take to prevent the inflammation and pain of this problem — and it all starts with your form.
“Learning proper running technique is the best way to avoid shin splints,” Smith says. “Try to maintain a higher cadence [of more than 180 steps per minute] to allow the muscles and tendons to absorb the force. When you have a slow cadence, your bones end up absorbing the force.”
Smith and Bright agree that shoe choice is another critical part of injury prevention, and they recommend getting fitted for your perfect shoe at a speciality running store. In addition to the right shoe for your body, choosing softer surfaces can have a big impact on the stress your body experiences during a run. Try to avoid concrete if possible, as it is much harder than dirt, grass and even asphalt.
“When your foot strikes the ground, you’re dealing with ground strike forces three to four times your body weight,” Bright says. “Softer surfaces will help lessen the impact of each foot strike.”
Your training volume can also come into play when you’re trying to avoid shin splints. Adding too many miles too quickly can significantly increase your chances of feeling pain. A good rule of thumb is to increase your total weekly mileage by no more than 10%, which gives your muscles the appropriate amount of time to become accustomed to the rigors of training at that level.
Treating the Pain
If you’ve done all you can to avoid shin splints but are still feeling the pain, there are a number of treatment options for easing symptoms.
The first thing to do is take note of your pain and how it’s affecting your body, says Bright. If your shin pain is extremely sharp, makes you limp or is pinpointed in a single spot, this is a sign that you need to take time away from running to properly heal. If the pain is not enough to affect your gait, it’s typically OK to continue training.
Icing your shins after a run can help reduce inflammation and ease the pain that accompanies that swelling. This simple ice massage method uses a paper cup to rub the ice up and down your shin. If you’re finding the pain to be too much to deal with, try technique training or physical therapy to pinpoint your weaknesses.
“These medical professionals can look at your biomechanics and recommend rehab exercises to gain strength and fix muscle imbalances,” Bright says. “If you can, find a physical therapist who is a runner.”
Smith suggests a recovery plan of stretching, joint mobility and soft tissue management that can help decrease the intensity of the symptoms. She recommends finding a specialist trained in the Graston Technique, which breaks up scar tissue and can help speed recovery.
Because every runner’s body is different, finding what works best for you through trial and error will ultimately be the only way to successfully deal with — or completely avoid — shin splints. And with these expert tips, you’re one step closer to pain-free running.