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How to Get Rid of (and Prevent) Shin Splints

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How to Get Rid of (and Prevent) Shin Splints

Shin splints are the bane of runners and athletes everywhere and in this article, you’re going to learn how to banish them for good.

 

I’ve long preferred biking to running but a few months back decided to mix things up…and I quickly learned how much shin splints suck.

The pain would come on fast and hard, like a vise clamping down on my leg, and the more I ran, the worse it got.

That, of course, got me wondering. What are shin splints? What causes them? And what can I do to treat and prevent such an aggravating pain?

Well, I read up, tried various strategies, and want to share with you what I’ve learned.

So let’s get to it.

What Are Shin Splints?

Shin splints is the layman’s way to refer to what’s known medically as medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS).

And while they might feel like fiery demons are waging war against your shins, the common causes are far less exciting.

There are two primary causes for shin splints: excessive pressure and/or impact on the lower leg tissues and bone.

Simply put, when the tibial muscles, tendons and bone tissue becomes overworked, the pain begins. And the more you try to push through it, the worse it gets.

There are two types of shin splints: anterior and posterior. Anterior shin splints are felt down the front of the leg and posterior are felt down the inside of the leg.

shin splints posterior anterior pain

Not all shin pain is caused by shin splints, though.

Pain on the outside of the lower leg might be compartment syndrome, which is a buildup of pressure in a section of the body that contains muscles and nerves. Symptoms of compartment syndrome include pain, strange nerve sensations, and muscle weakness.

Stress fractures (small fractures) are often mistaken for shin splints and may even accompany them.

A bone scan is necessary to know for certain, but one way to tell shin splints from stress fractures is to run your fingers over your shin, applying pressure. If you find a spot that triggers sharp pain, that’s a sign of a stress fracture. Shin splint pain is more generalized.

Stress fractures also tend to feel better in the morning, after the bone has rested all night, whereas shin splints often feel worse when you wake up because the inflamed tissues tighten overnight. Shin splints also flare up when you flex your foot up or down, depending on which tibial muscle is aggravated.

Ultimately, there isn’t a consensus among sport scientists as to exactly what’s causing the shin splint pain. Theories include inflammation of and/or small tears in the tibial muscles, inflammation of the periosteum (a thin layer of tissue wrapping around the bone), damage to the bone itself, and various combinations of these.

Fortunately, however, common causes and effective treatments and preventative measures are better understood.

What Are the Common Causes of Shin Splints?

shin splints causes

Any runner will tell you that shin splints tend to begin when mileage is increased or running surface hardens or terrain changes (hill running is a common trigger).

Other common causes are worn-out footwear, overpronation, flat feet, and even excessive stress placed on one side of the body from running on cambered roads or always in the same direction on a track.

It’s not the exercise per se that causes the problems, though; it’s the repeated shocks of landing and changing directions that does it.

This fatigues and overloads the muscles of the lower leg, which makes them less and less able to absorb the force of the blows. This is why shin splints only get worse if you try to push through them.

The common causes of shin splints can be boiled down to this: too much, too fast. This, then, informs how to properly treat them…

How to Get Rid of Shin Splints

shin splints stretches

Like any exercise-related injury, the first thing you have to do when you get shin splints is, depending on the severity, decrease or stop whatever is causing the problem.

The general recommendation is 2 to 6 weeks of rest, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop training completely.

For example, if running on a very hard surface like concrete ignites your shins, switching to a softer surface like pavement, gravel, dirt, or grass, can be enough to provide relief. You should also avoid hills and uneven surfaces.

Many people find that shin splints come on after several miles of running, or after several runs in a week. In these cases, reducing the length or frequency of the runs is likely to help.

If any amount of running whatsoever is a problem, you can switch to biking or swimming or some other form of cardio that doesn’t cause you pain.

You also want to start icing your shins every day to reduce inflammation. The easiest way to do this is with a special ice pack like this:

taping shin splints

 

And to follow a standard RICE protocol of 10 to 20 minutes of ice 3 or more times per day.

There are two stretches that can help as well.

1. Stretching your calves and Achilles tendons.

2. Stretching your shins.

There’s evidence that other therapies can help such as deep tissue massage and acupuncture, but the research is inconclusive. If you have the money, time, and inclination, there’s no harm in trying them.

The Bottom Line on Getting Rid of Shin Splints

As you can see, patience is a big part of treating shin splints.

The strategies given above can speed the healing process up, but you can still expect 2 to 6 weeks of recovery time until the pain goes away, and it’s very important that you make sure you’re pain free before you resume your normal activities.

Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.

How to Prevent Shin Splints

shin splints prevention

I’m of the mind that treatments are good but prevention is better. Why wait to fix something that’s broken when you can keep it from breaking in the first place?

Well, many people struggle with shin splints on and off for years without realizing there are ways to prevent them.

We’ll discuss the scientifically validated methods here.

Strengthen Your Core, Glutes, and Calves and Shin Muscles

Developing these muscles can improve running mechanics and prevent overuse injuries like shin splints.

Here are workouts that can help you with the major muscle groups:

The Ultimate Ab Workouts: The 5 Best Ab Exercises for Getting a Six Pack

The Best Butt Exercises for Building Head-Turning Glutes

The Ultimate Calves Workouts for Quickly Adding Size and Strength

And here are a few simple exercises for strengthening your shin muscles:

Stop Heel Striking

“Heel striking” is just what it sounds like it–landing heels-first when you run.

The impact of the heel strike is significantly worse than a proper midfoot landing, which is why heel striking is known to increase the risk of developing shin splints and other running-related injuries.

Here’s a good video that shows the difference between heel striking and midfoot running:

If you want to learn more about how to run properly, prevent injury, and maximize enjoyment and performance, check out Kelly Starrett’s latest book Ready to Run:

ready to run

Use the Right Shoes

Worn-out and/or ill-fitting shoes can contribute to shin splints and, contrary to popular belief, soft, cushiony shoes can as well.

Shock absorption is part of the reason why shoes matter but stability is equally if not more important.

Overpronation is extremely common and you want your shoes to help prevent it. And in case you’re not familiar with overpronation, here’s what it looks like:

shin splints from walking

As you can see, when the ankles roll too much to the inside, they’re overpronated, and this puts extra pressure on your shins.

Well, good running shoes can help this whereas battered or squishy shoes or ones that don’t fit can’t.

This is one of the reasons why it’s generally recommended that you replace your running shoes every 200 to 300 miles (and that you never wait longer than 500 miles).

I’m not big on running so don’t have much in the way of personal recommendations for shoes, but I would go with something made to prevent overpronation and promote midfoot strikes, like one of these:

shin splints prevention shoes

shin splints treatment

shin splints prevention exercises

What About Compression Socks?

Compression socks (and compression gear in general) is popular among athletes and there’s good evidence that it can help reduce muscle soreness and speed muscle recovery.

Thus, it’s understandable why compression socks are commonly recommended for preventing shin splints, but research casts doubt on this application.

That said, studies on compression socks are all over the place and hard to interpret due to the wide range of socks used, the experience level of the runners involved, and the inability to accurately measure certain parameters.

Remember that when we’re talking health, fitness, and exercise, anecdotal evidence can be valuable, and especially where scientific evidence is conflicting or meager.

If I were struggling with shin splints, I’d give compression socks a go because enough people say it gives them relief. I’d chalk it up to “worth a shot.”

And if you’re going to do that, you should know that research suggests that there is a “sweet spot” for the amount of compression provided by the sock. In this study, scientists found that, in subjects at rest, 20mmHg at the ankle improved blood flood but 30mmHg restricted it.

Furthermore, graduated compression is most effective, which means you want a sock that is tighter in the ankle are than the knee.

Here’s a compression sock from a reputable brand (CEP) that meets these criteria:

shin splints causes and cures

Or you could go with their compression sleeve if you prefer:

shin splints treatment stretches

And in terms of how to use compression socks/sleeves, you can run with them and/or wear them afterward. Many people wear them as much as they can tolerate, which seems to range from several to 16+ hours. Experiment and see how your body responds.

If wearing them for long periods of time causes pain, though, it’s time to take them off. The compression can eventually aggravate baroreceptors in your leg, which is going to hurt.

The Bottom Line on Shin Splints

shin splints running

As debilitating as your shin splints might be, you can get rid of them for good, and this article shows you how.

If you’re currently in the throes of tibial torture, back off and let them heal, and then strengthen your core and lower body, work on your running technique, make sure your shoes are up to snuff, and if you’re willing to give them a go, pick up some high-quality compression socks.

Happy running!

 

What’s your take on shin splints? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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    • Megan

      I am just healing from a terrible bout of shin splints from over-pronating and increasing speed and distance significantly on the treadmill. I land on my heels every time as well, which I see is also a culprit. I ended up in the ER the pain got so bad. I did some research and increased vitamin D. Between that and implementing some of the stretches the pain seemed to fade. I suggest increasing vitamin D for those who are deficient. I have not had the courage to go for a run again yet. In time…

      Megan

  • Steven Scott

    I used to run a lot, and found that my ankle pain went away when I changed my stride to land on the front of the foot, with as little heel impact as possible. For the last couple of years that I did long-distance running, I could run on pavement in old army boots without pain. Might be worth trying for others who have running-related pain.
    I actually got the idea when someone pointed out that most of the big runners of nature (horses, cheetahs, and such) run on their toes.

  • Sean

    Deadlifts used to bash up my shins pretty badly, and it would make running extra painful

    • I know what you mean. That’s why I recommend wearing pants and/or shin sleeves when deadlifting.

  • Brian Natumanya

    I have been getting those shine splints didn’t even know what they were all i thought is i was unfit and needed to push my self more through the pain. Glad to know am not the only one. I usually sprint up a step slope made of tarmac. As i sprint uphill 100m and walk back downhill and do that five times early in the morning. but the pain usually starts the day after damn its painful. I would have loved to do sprint 3 times a week but the pain doesn’t allow me glad to know their is a solution.

  • Andrew Harrisberg

    I suffered for years. So debilitating I could hardly walk. I’m an exercise physiologist so I thought I knew exactly how to fix the problem. I tried everything I knew according to the scientific research (basically all the things you highlighted above). Footwear, ice, massage, anti-inflamms, etc etc. Whilst they helped to alleviate acute symptoms – they didn’t help long-term.
    Believe it or not – NUTRITION fixed my chronic problem. I know, it sounds crazy. I eliminated grains (specifically gluten) for autoimmune disease purposes and my shin splints literally disappeared. All training variables remained the same, but the shin splints went away. I think your article is great but I just thought I’d toss nutrition into the mix as another alternative for chronic sufferers.
    Thanks for the content.
    Keep doing your thing mate!

    • That’s very interesting. Thanks for sharing Andrew! Glad you no longer suffer from shin splints. They’re awful.

  • Kiya Marchi

    Suffering from these for the first time since high school track 15 years ago. You always write articles that apply to my fitness journey. Thanks for reading my mind and providing evidence-based information.

  • Craig Davey

    A characteristically great article Mike. I suffered on and off for years. Moving away from heel-striking is the key preventive step, but id agree with all the other tips – non squishy shoes, stretch and strengthen, regular deep tissue massage (self-inflicted). These fixes took me from 30mpw with pain to 80mpw pain-free.

    Thanks for the great books btw!

    • Thanks Craig.

      Glad you’ve been effectively handling your shin splints and have been able to increase the amount you’re running each week so drastically.

      Keep up the good work and keep me posted!

  • MattyD

    I first experienced shin splints when I joined the Army over 15 years ago. The introduction of tabbing/yomping in boots over hills compared to my otherwise pretty standard training was the cause.

    Analysis of my running helped but that didn’t help having to wear Army issue boots. What really got me through was ice baths, used to use a window planter box, water and a bag if ice. Id dip my lower leg (one after the other) in for as long as I could after training and did so for several weeks until they stopped being a problem.

    • I’m sure the boots didn’t help, haha.

      Glad you were able to take care of it with the icing!

  • matthew reid

    I use to have them really bad from running for years. One day my wife asked me to go with her to get a pedicure and they always offered a foot and leg massage at the end. I said sure, why not? The nice young lady ran her thumbs up and down the muscle on the inside of my front calf and bone and although painful, I’ve never had shin splints since. I think it was a build up of lactic acid, but whatever it was, it’s gone. It’s been 10 years and they’ve never come back.

  • Harjas

    Great article! Can you write an article like this but about sprained and fractured ankles. Haha.

  • TD

    Never suffered from shin splints but had a bad bout with plantar fasciitis earlier this year which can be just as debilitating. Many of the same things you mention in the article about recovering from shin splints I found to be as effective for PF too. Although the key is really in trying to prevent them from happening in the first place.

    • Yeah I’ve heard that can be awful. And right–prevention is really the key.

  • It took me several years to get to grips with shin splints. I am happily running up to 10k and even half marathons now. Slowing my training down and running shorter distances than my fitness would allow felt very counter intuitive.

    Here is my recovery @Sundried:disqus http://www.sundried.com/blogs/training/62333893-i-cant-run-because-i-have-shin-splints

  • Brian Natumanya

    I really enjoyed sprints up a steep slope made of tamarac as my form of HIIT cardio, i would get soreness in the thighs at first but after a few days i worked through the pain, But then pains in the shins started i thought would work through the pain but only got worse, been six months havnt sprint again glad to see this article hopefully with the tips i could revive my early morning sprints. i

    • Sorry to hear about the shin splints man.

      LMK how it goes applying the points from this article!

  • Kaitlin

    I started track this year and my coach had always warned me about running flat footed and that I didn’t want to get shin splints but I never really thought it would happen so quickly. So we started training with spikes and the second day we wore them, the arch of my foot and my shins were hurting but not to bad so I didn’t think much of it and didn’t listen to the pain. But the third day, it just got worse and I told my coach. She said that I needed thicker socks and that would help with the arch so the next day the socks helped with my arch but my shins were killing me and I couldn’t even run the second mile so she told me I needed to go get shin sleeves and stop running she flat footed so I got the sleeves today and I haven’t got the chance to run with them yet but just walking around the house the pain has been getting worse. Should this happen?

    • Dang, I’m sorry to hear that.

      Have you checked out your stride? Are you heel striking?

  • Katie

    What about when playing soccer what would I do about my shin splints? My coach has practice every day after school.

    • Katie, I’d let him know about it and let it recover if compression socks aren’t helping. You’re no good on the field if you’re not in tip-top shape!

  • Johnny McCarron

    I really like your advice to just stop doing whatever it is that is causing the shin splints. I never understood people that keep running even though their shins are killing them. You just have to find a good way to still work out that takes the pressure off your shins. Do you have any other advice for shin splints? https://shintekk.com/product/shintekk-starter-pack/

  • Luke Yancey

    Thank you for mentioning flat feet as a cause for shin splints! One year when I was in high school and running for track I got shin splints really bad. I went to a podiatrist and he told me my flat footedness was the cause. He recommend buying special shoes with an arch. I did and a week later the pain was completely gone!
    http://centrepod.com.au/centrepod/podiatry-2/

  • Kye Harris

    How can you stop shin splints if you can’t rest? I’ve just joined a high level netball squad and the season is just starting! And I’m starting to get them:( I had them rubbed out today but I also can’t rest. I’ll have 2 training sessions a week as well as a game. Help

    • That’s tough. Not sure if you’ll be able to, but may as well do what you can.

      I recommend lowering the running volume as much as possible, getting proper shoes and applying everything else that you can from this article.

      Hope it helps. LMK how it goes.

  • ANNA K

    I’m cyclist and have a shin splint on one leg that has been nagging me for months. I backed off of riding since it seems to swell and agrivate it. I have high arches. I don’t wear heals. Inserts have not helped. Since I don’t know what caused mine, its tough to know what to do. Any suggestions?

    • Dang, sorry to hear about that Anna. Unfortunately I don’t have a good suggestion for you as I myself have only dealt with shin splints while running, and getting the right shoes fixed it.

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