Running Niggles V: Shin splints

Shin splint pain comes on when you run. It might be there as soon as you start running or develop after a while on your feet. It’s felt on the front of your lower leg, often just to the medial (inner) side. It usually feels tender to touch generally in that area. It can happen on one or both sides. The pain goes away when you stop running and rest.

When do shin splints happen?

Although the mechanism of shin splints isn’t certain, they do seem to be linked to overuse. So, a new runner who is feeling enthusiastic and heading out for lots of runs, or a more experienced runner who is quickly cranking up their miles, are both at risk. Being overweight is another risk factor for shin splints and women are more likely to be affected than men. The positioning of your body when you run is called your running biomechanics. Poor biomechanics can mean an increased chance of shin splints. This could be a muscular weakness or imbalance in your core, hips, knees or ankles that has a knock-on effect on to your lower legs and feet and puts you at higher risk of shin problems.

How are shin splints treated?

If your shins are sore, then applying ice packs and using pain killers is the first aid treatment. Rest however is the most important thing. After around two to four weeks the pain and tenderness should go and you can slowly begin to run again. You can keep up your fitness during this time by doing exercises that don’t trigger the pain. Try cycling or swimming. It’s a really good idea to see a sports physiotherapist to figure out why you have had shin splints. Working on weaknesses and imbalances and having a slow, graded return to running may be all that is needed. This is particularly important if you have had shin splints before; recurrent problems usually have an underlying cause.

How can I prevent shin splints?

Gradually increasing your running frequency and distance, running on softer ground and strengthening your calf muscles are all things that can help prevent shin splints. Make sure you have plenty of rest days to allow the bones and muscles to adapt to the demands you are placing on them. Working on good running form and technique and seeing a physiotherapist to assess your running gait and biomechanics can both help stop shin problems. It’s not clear how important foot placement is when it comes to preventing shin splints but if you have significant pronation of your feet when you run then being assessed for the right shoes for your feet may make a difference.

How do I know it isn’t a break in the bone?

Any pain that keeps coming back is significant and shouldn’t be ignored. Another warning sign is pain that you get at rest, so if the shin pain doesn’t ease up when you stop running or affects you at night, it definitely needs checking out by a medical professional. Similarly, if there is one particular point on your shin that hurts when you press it, rather than a general tenderness, then this can also be a sign of a more serious bony injury. 

Don’t be disheartened, recovery can take time but is achievable and we all know that the patience and hard work is worth it if it keeps you running.  

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