If you are one of few, lucky runners whom have never experienced the piercing pain of shin splints—I hate you. Just kidding (mostly!). But seriously, please tell me your secret because I have suffered with shin splints throughout my long-distance running career, beginning in high school. Now that I’m in the middle of training for a half-marathon, the sharp pangs in the front of my legs that accompanies each stride has returned in full force.
The best advice for any running-related injury is to take a break from running for a few weeks and then gradually increase your mileage. However, as was the case during cross-country season, not running for a fortnight is not a practical option. So what is a runner to do? Well, knowledge is power, so let’s dive into this common and frustrating phenomenon.
“Shin splints,” also known as medial tibial stress syndrome in the medical community, occur when too much force is placed on your tibia (shinbone) and the connective tissues that attach your muscles to your bone. Increasing activity, duration, or intensity of the causal exercise too quickly leads to shin splints because the tendons and muscles are unable to handle the impact of the shock force and become fatigued. The condition occurs due to repeated trauma over time, not a single isolated incident.
Misery loves company, so thankfully, shin splints do not only occur in long-distance runners. The condition is also common for those who participate in activities with sudden starts and stops, like basketball or tennis.
Other risk factors for shin splints include really weak calf muscles, weak core muscles, and regularly running on unforgiving surfaces like concrete and asphalt. Also, overpronators (like myself) tend to be more susceptible to shin splints because the tendency for the ankle to roll inward when running shifts weight distribution medially (hence, “medial tibial stress syndrome). Overpronation is more common in those with flat feet.
Options, options, options
Luckily, shin splints are treatable and having them does not necessarily mean that you need to give up your morning jog.
When you have shin splints, icing those bad boys should be your primary line of attack. Ice your shins for 20-30 minutes every 2-3 hours after a run. This will help with pain and swelling. Along those lines, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or naproxen, will be your best friend. Both of these treatment options are good to do before and after a run (or whatever physical activity).
Since one of the underlying causes of shin splints may be weak calf muscles, I recommend doing calf strengthening exercises a few times a day. A practical place to start is by doing 10-15 standing calf raises right after you wake up and right before you go to bed every night.
Another treatment option/something you should have anyway is proper footwear. As mentioned above, those who overpronate typically have either low arches or flat feet, so arch supports (either custom made or bought over the counter) may help you get your stride in check.
I have also found that compression of the shins while running has been incredibly helpful to reduce impact pain. Snugly taping the shins with an ACE bandage from the ankle to right below the knee with an Ace bandage (learn from my mistake and make sure you tape a little looser around your calf so you don’t cut off your circulation). If you’re really serious about treating your shin splints (or if the pain is ruining your workout), you may want to look into some compression sleeves, like these.
Take it seriously
The suggestions I have mentioned refer to how to treat uncomfortable to moderately painful shin splints. However, if these at-home treatments are not helpful and your shin(s) becomes hot and inflamed, the pain seems to be getting worse, and/or your shin pain continues while at rest, it’s time to see a doctor. Take it seriously, because these symptoms may be indicative of a stress fracture, in which case, you must stop your running and follow medical advice.
Injuries may occur – especially if you are serious/consistent in your workout and/or are specifically training for an event. A key to preventing injury is to know your body and be keenly aware of your tendencies and past performance issues. Deal with your injuries in stride, and with wisdom, while not allowing frustration to ruin a good thing.