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Why Runners Get Shin Splints — and How To Avoid Them

January 05, 2022

If you’re a beginning runner, chances are you’ll end up with painful shin splints at some point in your training. While common and easily treatable, there are steps you can take to avoid them. 

Shin splints occur when the muscles, tendons or bone tissue around the tibia become inflamed from overuse. When muscles and tendons pull too hard on the bone or periosteum (lining of the bone), it can get irritated and painful. The lining of the bone is attached to nerve tissue, which is very sensitive. 

Shin splints can take a while to develop. You may feel a dull or throbbing pain after a run. When you push through that pain, shin splints can set in earlier on in the run or last longer afterward. They can also become aggravated if you touch the sensitive area on your lower leg. 

Runners, dancers, military recruits and anyone who does a lot of high-impact cardio exercise are more prone to shin splints. Beginner runners are particularly affected because they can be overzealous in their training — meaning, they run too much too soon. 

How To Treat Shin Splints 

The best way to recover from shin splints is to rest and decrease your exercise. Ice, anti-inflammatory pain medication (NSAIDs) like acetaminophen or naproxen sodium, and compression can help relieve pressure and pain. 

If you don’t want to lose momentum and endurance in your training, alter your exercise routine by decreasing your mileage or days per week. You can also try cross-training, which means training with a different type of exercise. 

So, for example, a runner who’s suffering from shin splints may want to try running in a pool or a treadmill every other day. These lower impact exercises can still ensure you’re meeting your goals and maintaining your endurance and strength without stressing your bones and muscles. 

Stress Fractures 

Our bones are adaptable and can recover from shin splints, but we also must do our part to help the recovery move along. It’s also important to see a doctor before shin splints become a long-term issue. 

If your injury becomes severe, shin splints can develop into a stress fracture. Stress fractures are tiny cracks in a bone — most commonly, in the weight-bearing bones of the lower leg and foot. They're caused by repetitive force, often from overuse, such as repeatedly jumping up and down or running long distances. 

Stress fractures are even more painful than shin splints and typically require a visit to the doctor. Recovery takes roughly six to eight weeks. 

Avoiding Shin Splints 

If you’re a beginning runner, there things you can do to avoid shin splints, including: 

  • Avoid overdoing your routine.

  • Stretch your legs before and after running.

  • Ensure that your running technique isn’t contributing to any injuries. Watch a video of how to properly run or hire a trainer to show you the safest way to run.

  • Incorporate strength training into your routine to strengthen your muscles around the shinbone and hips.

  • Exercise on softer surfaces, like an indoor track or treadmill, to decrease the amount of force and pressure on your shins. 

Proper Running Shoes Matter 

It’s important to wear footwear that supports your feet during long-distance runs and high-volume exercises. You can also look into orthotics for arch support, especially if you have flat feet and are predisposed to injuries. 

Experts suggest changing your running shoes every six months or every 300 miles because shoes lose their support and elasticity over time.

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