You know you’re a runner when you get angry that an injury keeps you from running, not that it damages your body. And, as most of you probably have experienced first-hand, shin splints are one of the worst. Whether you’re a casual, three miles on the weekend runner, an ultra marathoner or somewhere in between, you run the risk of contracting shin splints at some time during your running life. This injury can be incredibly painful and frustrating, but if you understand the injury, how you get it, and how to treat it, you can recover more quickly from your shin splints and get back to the grind. What more can you really ask for?
Let our runner’s guide to shin splints help you understand this injury.
What are shin splints?
You probably know what pain from shin splints feels like. You probably also know that this injury can make it difficult (or worse, impossible) to continue running. You’ve probably at one point cursed your body for failing you. But, despite all of this, do you actually know what shin splints are? We’ve found that, while most runners can identify this injury, many don’t know what is actually happening in their body to cause this pain. Unfortunately, there is no real consensus among sports scientists regarding what actually causes this pain. Some theories include:
- Small tears in the muscle that’s pulled off the bone
- An inflammation of the periosteum (a thin sheath of tissue that wraps around the tibia)
- An inflammation of the muscle
- Swelling of the bone (also referred to as medial tibial stress syndrome)
The good news is that, although it’s unclear exactly what shin splints are, sports scientists do agree on the symptoms, causes and treatments of this type of injury.
Identifying the symptoms
It might come as a surprise, but shin pain doesn’t always mean you have shin splints. Here are some of the symptoms you might experience with shin splints:
- Dull ache in the front part of the lower leg
- Pain that develops during exercise
- Pain on either side of the shin bone
- Muscle pain
- Pain along the inner part of the lower leg
- Tenderness or soreness along the inner part of the lower leg
- Tenderness or soreness along the inner part of the lower leg
- Swelling in the lower leg (usually mild, if present)
- Numbness and weakness in the feet
A good baseline to determine whether you’re suffering from shin splint pain is to lift your foot up at the ankle and flex your foot. This is usually when shin splints are at their most painful.
EXPERT TIP: Shin splint pain can also lead to stress fractures if left untreated too long. To determine whether you have a stress fracture, press your fingertips along your shin. If you can find a singular spot of sharp pain, you likely have a stress fracture.
Causes and prevention
There are a number of different causes of bone-related shin splints (remember from above that muscle-related shin splints are likely a sign of ECS). Here are some of the most common:
- What is it?: An excessive inward roll of the foot after landing. This often causes pain in the foot, shin, and knee as well as excessive wear on the inner side of your running shoes.
- Prevention: Overpronation can be prevented by purchasing the correct shoes for your body. Shoes with straight or semi-curved lasts, and motion-controlled shoes with firm, multi-density midsoles will help correct your stride. Consider visiting a running store and getting a gait analysis to determine the best shoe for your stride. The salespeople should be able to use your analysis to determine the best shoe to purchase. In addition, overpronation can cause extra stress and tightness in the muscles of your lower leg. Stretching this area before and after activity will help.
- What is it?: Your running shoes get put through a lot in their lifetime. They carry a lot of weight and deal with a lot of stress in order to keep your body safe. That said, shoes that are past their prime can no longer do their job to keep your legs safe. Overworn shoes don’t have as much cushioning or stability and will cause a higher impact between your feet and the ground than newer shoes.
- Prevention: Most running shoes have a lifetime of between 300 and 500 miles. Once you’ve hit that distance in your shoes, it’s time for them to retire and for you to get a shiny new pair. Admittedly, different shoes might last a little longer or a little less time than average; ask a salesperson at your local running store how long you should expect your shoes to last. Then download an app, like the Nike+ Running app, that can be used to track the miles you’re putting on your shoes so you don’t have to keep track of it manually.
Excessive Stress on One Leg
- What is it?: It’s possible that you’re putting too much stress on one side of your body and that’s causing too much stress to that side. If you’re running on cambered roads or always running the same direction on a track, the pressure on your body is not evenly distributed and one leg or hip is taking the majority of the stress. In this scenario, the side of the body that tends to experience the most stress is almost always the runner’s dominant side.
- Prevention: If you’re running on a cambered road, don’t cross the street and run on the other side on your way back, instead stop, turn 180 degrees around and run back along the exact path that you came. This will help evenly distribute the stress of the run overall. Likewise, if you are running on a track, try not to run the same way each day, instead switch up whether you run clockwise or counterclockwise and try to keep it even over time.
- What is it?: This one is pretty self-explanatory. If you don’t adequately stretch and warm up your lower-leg muscles before activity, your muscles are placed under more stress and they tighten up on your bones causing more stress to them. If you don’t adequately stretch after your workout, lactic acid buildup in the muscles will cause stress to those muscles and they, again, will tighten causing stress to the bone.
- Prevention: Dynamic stretching before your workout and static stretching afterwards focusing on the lower-leg muscles.
These are just a few specific examples of things you can do to help prevent shin splints. Engaging in proper muscle recovery will help keep your legs strong and keep you training at your full potential. For more tips on how to keep your muscles in peak performance shape, download your FREE Day-to-Day Muscle Recovery Checklist.
Unfortunately shin splints are one of the most painful stress injuries that runners have to deal with. You may have heard the old adage “run through the pain,” but in the case of shin splints this isn’t something you want to do. Experts agree that it’s better to stop running completely or at least significantly decrease your training depending on the severity of the pain. Here are a few other treatments that will help you recover more quickly and get back on the road (or track, trail, or treadmill):
- Use the RICE technique for the first 24 hours. Rest to avoid putting additional stress on the injured area and ice your shin, use some compression on the injury and elevate your lower leg to reduce inflammation. Athletes often overuse this technique. After the initial 24 hour window, RICE (ice specifically) actually slows the healing process so make sure that you discontinue this technique as soon as the swelling has subsided.
- Gently stretch your Achilles and/or calves depending on where the pain is located. Make sure you’re not pushing too far to the point that you’re causing more pain. You should feel a stretch but it shouldn’t be painful.
- Once you’ve stopped using the RICE technique (again…as soon as the swelling goes down!), you can’t just expect the injury to be healed or to heal without you doing anything. Our Injury Treatment Kits are designed to encourage quicker injury recovery by reducing inflammation, repairing damage, removing toxins from the body, and increasing circulation to the injured area. Our four kits are specifically designed to work harder for you depending on the severity of your injury and will help speed up your recovery and get you back to the grind more quickly.
If you aren’t sure which injury kit you need, let us help! Fill out our Injury Assessment and a injury specialist will help you determine the best kit for you.
Regardless of whether you’re prone to shin splints and dealing with them for the hundredth time or if it’s your first time and you can’t imagine a worse pain, we understand the struggle. We also know that any injury that stops you from doing your sport is not only painful but also seriously frustrating. Hopefully by better understanding your injury and how to treat it, you’ll be back training soon and better than ever!