Getting shin splints from running is a common running overuse injury, that’s particularly common for new runners to suffer from.
This post explains what shin splints are, why they could be causing your shins to hurt when you run, how to treat them in the short term as well as how to get rid of shin splints for good, including useful stretching exercises and changes you can make to your training and running form to help prevent shin splints from happening again.
What are Shin Splints and what do they feel like?
Shin splints feel like an ache on one side of the shin bone, halfway up the front of your lower leg (between the ankle and knee).
The pain from shin splints can seem to feel like the shin muscles are pulling away from the shin bone (eww). To some extent, that is likely what’s happening, meaning the muscles and connective tissues are being stressed and put under too much strain than they should be.
You should definitely visit a doctor if you suspect you have shin splints. If they confirm this for you, they may also refer to shin splints as ‘medial tibial stress syndrome’, and will be able to give you professional advice on how to treat shin splints for a speedy recovery.
In my experience, shin splint pain tends to be worst when running on hard surfaces, particularly when running downhill. It can happen in one leg, or both legs.
Pain from running shin splints is not a sharp pain, more of a nagging pain that won’t go away, and sometimes continues to hurt after running.
It will get worse if you don’t rest it and will return again unless you work out a way to stop getting shin splints in the future.
If you are getting pain in your lower leg during or after running, definitely consider getting examined by a professional, because as well as the possibility of it being shin splints, there are other possible reasons your leg hurts, including more serious injuries such as stress fractures.
What causes Shin Splints?
The first step in finding out how to avoid shin splints when running is understanding what you are doing when you run which may have caused the problem.
Once you know this, then you can work out how you can stop getting shin splints by changing how you run in terms of your distance, duration, the terrain you run on, shoes you wear and how often you run for.
To work out why you are getting shin splints, it helps to ask yourself the following questions:
- Have I increased my weekly time/distance running recently… perhaps too quickly?
- Have I been running fast on hard surfaces, either flat or downhill?
- Do I tend to heel-strike when I run (with a long running stride, landing mainly heels first, before the rest of the foot?)
- Are my running shoes old or worn-out, lacking good support?
Like many running overuse injuries, the shin pain can start to occur as a result of over-training, poor running form – or a combination of the two.
When I used to suffer from this nagging pain, the main reason for it was that at that point in my trail marathon training I would do some of my hill training by running up and down a road that was on a steep hill.
Running ‘fast’ downhill, especially on a hard surface such as concrete or tarmac, meant I was landing heels first and straining my shins.
When you run with a long stride length, or downhill, you tend to heel-strike rather than land with your feet more flat.
Landing on your heel first means there’s a lot of weight and strain on the front of your knee down to your feet – and particularly over your shins, leading to you developing shin splints.
Can I run if I have shin splints?
It’s best not to run with shin splints, because it only prolongs and worsens the issue. Ideally, it is better to limit running time and intensity as well as duration.
You need to let sore shins heal and learn from the experience so you don’t end up repeating the injury in the future.
Running with injuries is usually a bad idea because even if you can just about run through the pain, it’s likely that your good running form may suffer, and this will bring on a whole new set of problems like stress fractures or experiencing back aches while running for example.
How long do Shin Splints last?
If you’re wondering how long it will take for shin splints to heal, this depends on how bad they are and also how quickly you heal.
If you follow the tips below, this should help them get better quickly, which in my personal experience can range from around one week to more than four weeks.
Initial Treatment for Shin Splints
In the short term, here are three tips to help alleviate shin splint pain and help heal shin splints fast.
1. Rest and ice your sore shins
The first thing many people find beneficial to treat shin splints is to rest the leg and apply an ice pack to your lower leg shin muscles for around 10 minutes at a time, 3-4 times a day if possible.
The ice helps reduce the shin splint swelling and you should find it helps to ease pain.
As part of your general training and recovery routine, you could also consider taking an ice bath for your whole body: learn about the benefits of ice baths for runners.
If the shin pain is really bad, some people take anti inflammatory pain relievers, however that is something we tend to avoid as it masks the problem and may tempt you to run before your shin bone tissue has healed.
2. Rest your legs
Try not to walk around much for one to two weeks to get plenty of rest and allow the shins to heal.
Also, think about your diet, and whether you can eat more vitamin-rich, plant-based foods to help your body to heal as quickly as possible.
3. Do strength training and cross-training
If you need to continue training or maintain fitness, focus on low-impact cross-training while you are avoiding running and letting your shins heal.
The best cross-training for runners in this situation includes:
- core and upper body strength workouts
Working on your cross-training and core strength will ultimately make you a stronger runner and can help strengthen your shin muscles and other parts of your body such as your knee, ankle and foot, which can make your body more robust and less prone to injury once you are able to go running again.
However, if any of these hurt or aggravate your recovering leg, then choose another option or go swimming for a no-impact and non-weight-bearing cardio workout.
You can also considering seeing a physical therapist to help with your shin splints rehab. Your doctor should be able to recommend a suitable practitioner.
How to avoid shin splints – for good
These tips are all the ways that I learned how to avoid shin splints – because once I had them and knew there was a way to stop getting them, I made damn well sure I was doing everything I could to make sure I could run again, pain-free.
Make sure you have taken a rest from running and no longer have the shin pain before trying to run again.
When you do start running again, take it easy and build your duration and distance up slowly.
Many of these tips for preventing shin splints are good for improving your running form so I highly recommend them not only to help you prevent shin splints but also to become a stronger, happier runner.
1. Reduce your running stride length, especially downhill
Focus on taking smaller strides, landing on your midfoot (not your heel) with your body above the landing foot, not behind it.
For downhill running, keep taking the shorter stride length, and if it’s really steep, try zig-zagging your way down to curb your speed and the impact on your shins and front of your knees (think: skiier style!).
This should help you reduce the amount of ‘heel striking’ you do and reduce shin strain as well as potentially reduce the likelihood of experiencing other injuries such as a stress fracture.
2. Increase your running ‘cadence’
This means taking more steps per minute, which will probably, at least initially, go hand in hand with taking smaller strides.
A good number of steps per minute to aim for is 180 (90 on each leg).
This cadence shift should also help you work on your overall running form and body mechanics for running in general, that will all help you work towards being able to prevent shin splints from occurring.
3 Run on soft surfaces
Running on hard concrete can be very stressful on your body.
Try mixing up your running on a variety of running surfaces. This may include grass and gravel trails – trail running is a great way to reduce the impact on your legs, particularly when running downhill.
Treadmills are also softer surfaces to run on than outdoors on the pavement.
If you are new to trail running, our beginner’s guide to trail running is a great place to start if you want to learn more, including advice on how to find trails to run on and how to choose the best trail running shoes for your needs.
4. Do shin strengthening exercises
The shin muscles that hurt when you run are required to flex your feet – that is, point your toes up.
Often this area of your lower leg can get overworked and hurt when running new or increasing distances.
To help prevent shin splints in the future, doing small lower leg stretching exercises like toe raises and heel raises will specifically help strengthen your shins, ankles, feet and calf muscles.
A physical therapist can help you come up with an appropriate rehab and strengthening plan that includes these, among other helpful exercises.
5. Ice your shins
If you’ve had a tough, long or hilly run session, then make sure you ice your shins (along with other heavily-worked areas) with an ice-pack.
Alternatively, as I prefer to do, take a few minutes in the shower to run the water over your lower legs while you massage them with the other hand, using the coldest temperature possible.
I find this is good to do anyway after every run, but particularly if you feel a shin splint or other strain developing, as it can help reduce inflammation around your shin bone, ligaments and muscles.
6. Wear compression sleeves
When I was a new runner recovering from shin splints, I found that wearing calf compression sleeves really helped. They work by supporting your lower legs and reducing muscle oscillation.
They’re definitely worth a try as an interim way to give your leg muscles some support and compression while you run, as well as post-run recovery.
However, it’s important to acknowledge that you can’t just solve the problem by wearing compression calf guards, a change in running style and behaviour is most likely also required.
7. Wear the best running shoes for your feet and running style
While not the only reason you may be experiencing running injury, consider whether your running shoes are the right pair for you.
If your shoes are old, poorly-fitting or simply don’t provide the right support for your feet, this can impact how you run and, over many miles, contribute to overuse injury.
For example, if you consider yourself to have flat feet, then you’re going to want to make sure your running shoes provide enough support and stability to help reduce the possibility of flat feet contributing towards your possibility of getting shin splints from running.
Our guide to choosing the best running shoes provides more advice and recommendations to ensure you’re wearing a pair that should work best for you.
If you run mostly on roads, you could also consider whether getting some new, more supportive running shoe insoles, could help you improve your running form and posture.
8. Use CBD to help manage inflammation and reduce recovery time
We’ve had a lot of success using CBD supplements and CBD balms for recovery, whether that’s for shin splint pain (aka medial tibial stress syndrome), or simple muscular recovery after a tough training session.
It really helps us reduce inflammation in our bodies and recover quickly, even from intensive running efforts. If you’re new to CBD and the benefits for athletes, learn more by reading our guide to the best CBD balms for runners.
While it’s always annoying to have an injury stop you from running, I hope you’ve found these tips useful and they help you get rid of shin splints for good, so you can get back to running regularly.