Shin Splints

If you’re a runner (or even a person who walks faster than they’re used to), odds are you have experienced the pain that is shin splints. That, we have in common. If you’re still a runner (or still a-speed-walkin’), you’ve pushed through until they aren’t a problem for you anymore; congratulations! Shin splints are usually more common in people who are just getting into running or another high impact sport. If you’re still in those early stages, I’m here to get you over that hump and start running, dancing, balling, etc., like a champ. Then you can complain about that burn in your rock-hard quads instead. First let’s figure out what’s actually going on with your body. Continually running or quickly pivoting, such as in basketball, is hard on your lower leg muscles, bones, and connective tissue, causing them to swell up or even start to tear apart from each other. This is what we call medial tibial stress syndrome—or shin splints.

Shin Splint Symptoms

  • Pain, tenderness, and/or soreness all along your shins.
  • Possibly mild swelling.
  • Pain can be worse at rest and better with activity, or it could be continuous.

Risk Factors

  • Intense activities such as running, dancing, basketball, tennis, or even military training.
  • Running downhill or on slanted surfaces.
  • Worn-out shoes.
  • Flat feet or rigid arches.
  • Sudden increase in activity or intensity of workouts.

Best Treatments for Shin Splints

Relieve pain and swelling at home.

This step doesn’t actually take care of your problem, but it does get you feeling better, which is what you really want right this minute anyway. You can take OTC anti-inflammatories (like Aleve, which Amazon sells) and ice your shins. I had a friend in high school who would do this by filling a 10-gallon bucket with ice and sticking her feet in. I’m not that hardcore, so I’d recommend a few bags of ice or frozen veggies wrapped in washcloths draped over your legs. Ice a few times daily for around 15-20 minutes for a good bout of comfort.

Take a look at your footwear.

You want new shoes that fit you well and are suited to the sport you’re performing. The soles of your favorite old sneaks have worn-out treads and your toe is hanging out of a hole. Those things can’t absorb shock anymore, leaving it up to your body to make up the difference. And you’re feeling the pain of that difference right now. I know some specialty running stores have staff who can even tell you what kind of shoes are best for your feet. Another option is arch supports. Amazon has a wide variety of arch supports, and they’re a heck of a lot cheaper than a new pair of sneakers.

Take it easy and switch to another activity to cross-train.

Taking some time off is an easy way to ease shin splint pain, but it will probably just start up again when you start exercising again. Lower the intensity of your workouts or exercise less frequently, and then slowly build on that lower level. Also switch to another activity that isn’t quite as stressful to your shins, like swimming. That way you stay in shape and also work different muscle groups, building up your body’s all-over strength, which should be your fitness goal anyway.

Strengthening lower leg muscles will reduce the likelihood for shin splints.

Strong muscles are better at supporting your body through all the crap you put it through. So strengthen up those calves! Just slowly bouncing on your toes for as long as you can stand it is a good starting place, and it’s tougher than you’d think. Jumping rope is another killer calf workout. I love stretching out my shin muscles after a run: sit on the ground with your legs together, straight out in front of you. Point your toes and slowly lower your upper body towards your legs. Awesome.

Be sure that you actually have shin splints, and not a stress fracture.

It’s possible to confuse the two, as stress fractures in the lower legs are common in runners, too. The difference is that shin splints only affect the soft tissue, whereas a stress fracture is a little crack in your bone from too much pressure. It might be hard for you to tell the difference yourself, but a doctor will be able to diagnose which one you’re dealing with, and then tell you how to proceed.

Preventing Shin Splints

Although shin splints are a problem for lots of runners and athletes of other high-impact sports, they’re often only an issue for rookies. Sometimes my shins get a little sore when I’ve been slacking on my runs for a while, but other than that, I haven’t had any issues since I first started running. You just need to learn the balance of pushing yourself, but not so much that you do more harm than good. The best way to prevent shin splints is to follow the steps I’ve already laid out right when you first decide to start running. They’ll help you out after the fact, too, but if your legs are already in good shape, or you start running while cross-training with biking or swimming, the transition will be much easier on you. It’s also important to run with good form and on nice, flat surfaces. Running on slanted roads, for example, causes more stress on your legs. Run smart, slowly build up your workouts, and bring on that runner’s high. That’ll help prevent those shin splints.

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About the Author

Jacki Nilssen

Jacki Nilssen