On the heels of releasing my c25k companion guide and given the time of year it’s probably the perfect time to talk about shin splints! Is it a running injury, mmm no not really but boy can they hurt! Many a new runner has been derailed by these nasty buggers and given up completely. They’re so common they’re almost universal among new runners and twice in the past I have been thus afflicted. Let me start with this disclaimer now, I have sympathy for you I really do. They are serious (sort of) at least for you when you’re dealing with them for sure but you’re not going to die or anything. Phewww now that that’s out of the way you might not find much more sympathy here than that, from now on it’s all suck it up buttercup!
What are shin splints and why do they happen
I got shin splints for a couple of months when I first started running, when I was stopping and starting from time to time and for about 2 weeks when I returned to it. That’s pretty typical of runners and shin splints. It’s also typical in other sports where running and stopping and starting is a thing like dancing and soccer. For most (many) runners they are a thing you deal with when you first start and then never again. For some they can reoccur especially when milage goes up or for even fewer when the intensity of runs increases. They are more common in people who pronate and or have irregular arches. Quick poll? How do you even know if you have irregular arches? Other than that getting shin splints out of the blue again can mean the cushioning in your shoes is done so it’s time for a new pair.
Shin splints are caused by excessive loading of the muscle tissue surrounding the tibia (a bottom of the leg bone) and accent for about 15% of running ‘injuries’. These muscles fatigue too fast and so more of the load is transferred to the tibia than should be, specifically the Sharpy’s fibers that surround the bone. Hill running, uneven terrain and hard surfaces makes this problem worse. It’s not that serious of an injury because as you strengthen those fibers the problem resolves itself.
How do you know if you have them?
Shin splints are a lot like what they sound like, in short general pain in your shin bone region. While they are not serious what they can seem a lot like is, and that is stress fractures. The pain of both certainly can linger after you stop running though, from what I remember, sometimes for days. For the vast majority of runners out there confusing the two isn’t really an issue unless they pop up for you when you train harder. Both are characterized by pain in the shin but the key difference is the dullness or the ability to specifically point out the source of the pain. Shin splints are a steady dull ache (don’t get me wrong it can hurt a lot) but it seems to be coming from all over as opposed to one specific location. Stress fractures on the other hand are a sharp pain but more importantly as you poke your leg with your finger and you can point to one (or more) spots where you’re like “there, that’s exactly where it hurts the most.” Stress fractures almost always occur in athletes with very intense training schedules and not your average for fun runner. Since typically splints resolve themselves as you go and they are a just starting out thing, your average new runner with shin splints isn’t also at risk for overtraining injuries. The exception? If you have gotten splints in the past when intensifying your training and now you’re going for a really big new goal. For those runners there is a somewhat real risk of taking a real stress fracture as a simple splint. If in doubt always best to see a doctor and get an x-ray just to make sure.
How do you deal with them then?
There is a multi-pronged approach to dealing with splints, all of which are pretty easy. In all likelihood as you keep running those muscles fibers get stronger and the pain goes away. Fun fact they are almost always worse in a runner’s dominant leg. So to that end keeping you running is a great way to deal with them so here are some proven methods to keep you going:
- Get new shoes and take your old ones in and or have a gait analysis done to see if you pronate.
- Run on softer surfaces like grass, sand and avoid asphalt and especially stay off the concrete.
- Roll frozen water bottles with ridges over your sore shin
- Foam roll your chins everyday especially after a run.
- Wear cushioning insoles in your sneakers for now even if they feel weird.
- Take a couple of days off and try again.
- Cross-train or do the physio exercises to strengthening that area sooner
- Over the counter pain pills like advil.
- Switch back and forth between two pairs of shoes to vary the exact stress pattern.
- Elevate your legs as much as you can.
- Lower your weekly and daily milage until it stops hurting then increase by 10% per week or less.
- Take a two week break from running.
This is one of these things where you really could do all of these things but here’s what I would do. First of all buy a new pair of shoes if yours are old. Then I would take 5 days off completely. I’d stay off concrete as a rule and drive to a soft trail to run if I had too. I’d drop my daily milage by about half but not below one mile because well less than that barely counts. I’d run no more than 3 days a week or even twice. To rehab it faster I’d roll those ice bottles on my shins as much as possible while I’m just hanging out and foam roll and stretch twice a day. If they’re still acting up after two weeks add more things from the list. As long as you’re not running on them using over the counter pain meds to deal with the pain is fine but probably not essential. I’d take another week off entirely. Even though that’s a long list it takes almost no time and no more money than a pair of shoes that you’ll wear for something eventually. Even if you don’t become a runner we all need a pair of sneakers. If in a month they’re not improving I’d go see a doctor or at least physiotherapist. As a rule until your splints are hurting you in your everyday life you’re not ready to run again.
Long term sufferers
Some unfortunate runners deal with splints ever single time they up their training intensity or duration. So how does one of these runners ever marathon then? Well if this is you always have more than one pair of kicks on the go and aim to never wear the same pair three times in a row. You’ll use them all up eventually. You probably should also look into physio exercises to start at the first sign of splints and perhaps look into custom orthotics. Look for longer duration training plans the creep up in milage more slowly and perhaps replace hill running workouts with another type of speed work.
Why you can stop stressing
If you’re a new runner starting out you can almost expect to feel your shins at least a little bit some of the time. Following some or as much as you can of the above advice will help minimize that for sure. If you do deal with shin splints when your first starting view it as temporary, take care of yourself but don’t get discouraged because almost everyone deals with it and then it clears up and is behind you. Shin splints usually act up when you’re a new runner, like really, really new so there’s almost no chance you’ve managed to give yourself a stress fracture yet . It’s pretty easy to keep yourself out of trouble in that regard too. It’s not a great idea to run on pain meds because you can’t listen to your body as you should be. The pain can linger from splints but it does clear up in the days after a run. Don’t head out there again until you’re feeling at least 80% better. Finally it might hurt more while you’re out there and it’s never a good idea to run through pain. So when does an ache stop and pain start, I’m glad you asked. When pain is affecting your gait (how you step) it’s time to walk home or even call for a drive.
Your splints clearing up is also a process, slower than we’d like but still pretty quickly in the long run. They will continue to flare up as you go running but soon it will hurt less for less time after each run. If you’re here congratulations you’re almost done with splints. Then one day you’ll realize they haven’t bothered you in a long time now. When I started off I might have been a little dismissive of shin splints as a real injury. Other running injuries aren’t expected to get better if you just keep running, require rehabbing to repair and tend to reoccur over time if you do nothing about it. They also occur from overtraining on some level at least so you love running so much by the time you get them and have to take a break. That can make runners go absolutely bonkers and send them into a deep denial, which sucks! That’s why we’re a bit dismissive you have the only injury that will probably clear up with more running and we’re jealous! The other good news you’ll likely never ever have to deal with them again!
If you’re in doubt, have read and tried all this and others and your splints are super painful and not getting better it’s time to see the doctor. Did you get shin splints when you started? How long did it take for yours to clear up? If you’re one of the unlucky few that get them as you ramp up training how do you manage that long term?