Shin splints are the bane of a runner’s life. These excruciating pains in the legs and shins can cut short a training session and impair your performance, causing pain that can last for weeks. Let’s look at shin splints and how to prevent them.
What are Shin Splints?
Shin splints are typically experienced as acute pain in the front of your lower leg, along the shin bone. They are often accompanied by minor swelling in the area. But what are they really, and what causes them?
Medically, shin splints are known as medial tibial stress syndrome, and they are caused by inflammation of the muscles, tendons, and bone tissue along your shins.
The area becomes inflamed due to the stress of overwork and/or repetitive activity in the legs and feet. They are common in athletes, dancers, and military recruits, and almost always are more painful on the side of your dominant hand (right handed people typically experience shin splints on their right leg, and vice-versa for left-handed people).
They most often occur when there is a sudden change in your activity levels, like when you begin a new training regimen, increase intensity, or increase frequency of running.
Shin splints may be caused by:
- Overwork and stress on feet and legs
- Having flat or inflexible feet
- Overpronating the feet
- Exercising with incorrect footwear
Do You Have Shin Splints, or Something Else?
Acute pain in the shin may also be caused by a stress fracture, so if pain in the area is persistent and doesn’t go away with rest, it’s important to visit a doctor for diagnosis and treatment. Un-managed shin splints may also progress into stress fractures, so it’s important to take appropriate action when you experience pain in your shins.
If you experience acute pain on the outside of your lower leg (rather than along the shin), it may be a symptom of compartment syndrome, which should be diagnosed and treated by a physician.
How to Prevent Shin Splints when Running
1. Know Your Feet
Do you have high arches or low? Are your feet wide or narrow? Knowing what kind of feet you have will help you choose the right shoes and practice better form when running. Here’s a quick way to look at your foot arches at home:
- Place a piece of cardboard or thick paper on the floor
- Dip your foot in water
- Step on the cardboard and look at your footprint
If you see the full outline of your heel and the ball of your foot, with the outside of your foot leaving a print that is about half the width of the bottom of your feet, you have a normal arch.
If you see the shape of the heel and ball of your foot, with a very narrow print connecting them toward the outside of your foot, you have a high arch
If you see the outline of your complete foot, with little or no narrowing in your footprint at the arch, you have a flat foot.
2. Know Your Stride
Do you pronate or do you supinate? A normal stride rolls smoothly from the heel to the toe, but the weight shifts from slightly outside the center of the heel, inward toward the large pad beneath the big toe.
If your stride keeps your weight further to the outside or the inside of your foot, it places additional strain on the small, stabilizing muscles in your ankles, calves, and knees, and may lead to stress and injury. Here’s a quick way to evaluate your stride yourself:
Find a pair of our old, worn shoes and look at the sole; identify where the sole is the most worn.
- If the soles of your shoes are most worn in the center of the heel and underneath the toes, you have a normal stride
- If the soles of your shoes are worn down on the inside of the heels and toes, you have a pronated stride, occurring in about 45% of people
- If the soles of your shoes are worn on the outside edge, then you have a supinated stride, which occurs in about 10% of people
In most cases, minor pronation variances cause no problems and don’t need correction. However, for endurance runners who spend a lot of time on their feet, with repeated impacts, accounting for these variances can help you choose the right shoes and prevent strain.
3. Choose the Right Shoes
Shoes are the single most important piece of athletic equipment for runners, and having the right shoes can help prevent shin splints. Knowing your arch and your stride will help you choose the right shoes, and running shoes that prevent shin splints need to:
- Fit perfectly
- Provide the right support for your feet, particularly in the arch
- Provide excellent impact protection and stability in the heel
Here is some great information on what to look for in shoes depending on your feet and stride, or check out our top picks for running shoes for calf pain.
4. Have Two (or more) Pairs of Shoes
Some runners get so accustomed to the fit and feel of their favorite shoes that they don’t realize that the shoes have worn down and aren’t protecting their feet any more. In fact, old running shoes are a common cause of shin splints.
It’s always a good idea to have two pairs of shoes and alternate them: when shoes are allowed to dry out completely between workouts, it not only prevents odor, but it helps the shoes last longer. And it protects your feet by making sure that you are running in shoes that are operating in as good condition as you are.
Some runners train by alternating different styles or brands of shoes, because different shoes work the feet in slightly different ways. Simply alternating two types of shoes is a simple way to cross-train your feet.
5. Add Insoles if Necessary
Depending on your arch and your shoes, you may want to add insoles. Insoles provide improved support and cushioning, and can help customize your shoes to your feet and your needs.
Dr Scholl’s has runners insoles specifically for preventing shin splints or consider insoles for high arches or flat feet.
Physix Gear Full Length Orthotic Inserts with Arch Support For Men & Women
6. Build Workout Intensity Gradually
The most common cause of shin splints is a sudden dramatic increase in your activity levels. Even if you’ve been inspired by a marathon or are making a big lifestyle change, it’s important to give your body time to adjust to the new regimen. That means including warmups in every workout, increasing duration and intensity gradually over time, and taking rest days seriously.
Check out our 5k training guide for great tips on how to ramp up your workouts.
7. Stretch Before Running
You should never run without stretching first. Stretching prevents shin splints, as well as other pain and injuries you may experience during a run. Stretching the calf muscles is particularly important to protect the shins. Here are some great warm up stretches that prevent shin splints.
8. Avoid Running Uphill
If you are suffering from shin splints or are prone to them, avoid running uphill. It places more stress and strain on the front of the leg. Train for uphill runs gradually over time, increasing the incline until you can do so without pain.
9. Alternate the Stress
If you are running on a road or track with a camber, run out and back on the same side of the road, or switch directions on the track half way through, so that each leg is equally engaged during the duration of your run.
10. Avoid Running on Hard Surfaces
If you are a road runner, you may need to switch to a treadmill until your shins have had a chance to recover.
11. Wrap the Leg
Wrapping your leg can help to protect your shins and prevent shin splints, or reduce the pain of shin splints while you are recovering. You can use your own compression bandages, or purchase compression sleeves.
Calf Compression Sleeves and Leg Wraps (4 Piece) Shin Splint Support
12. Cross-Train with Low-Impact Activities
Impact is another primary source of shin splints, and avoiding it can help prevent shin pain and problems. Alternating running with no-impact cardio workouts like swimming, elliptical training, or rowing not only helps protect your lower legs and shins, but trains different muscles and boosts your overall fitness and endurance.
13. Stretch in Your Down Time
In between runs, practice some leg and calf stretches periodically throughout the day. After all, you don’t only have to stretch before a run, and there are great shin stretches that you can do even when you are seated in a chair. Here are some great stretches for shin splints that can be done any time.
Shin splints can be incredibly painful, and the inflammation can take weeks to go down. It’s best to prevent them altogether by following the steps above, and make sure that you are running safely and protecting your body. Fortunately, it’s easy to prevent shin splints, with a little extra time and care. Wear the right gear, stretch before running, build intensity slowly, and take care of your legs so you can enjoy running for years to come.