Shin splints are no joke.
And though there are definitely worse running-related injuries, it’s hard to look on the bright side when your shins feel like they’re going to fall off with every step.
Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to prevent shin splints from happening in the first place.
And if you’re already dealing with them, there’s plenty you can do to speed up the healing process, too.
Let’s start with the basics and then I’ll walk you through the best ways to treat shin splints and then prevent them from ever happening again.
What Are Shin Splints?
Shin splints describe leg pain caused by very specific motions related to exercise or physical movement.
In short, shin splints gradually form in the lower legs when your muscles and bones strain after being pulled toward your shin bone, or the tibia.
Eventually, due to the contact between your bone and your muscles, your leg becomes so irritated and swollen that you develop a painful inflammation.
Usually, athletes (and especially runners) who put repeated stress on their shin bones, muscles, and connective tissues run the risk of forming shin splints (or the more technical and accurate name of “medial tibial stress syndrome.”)
No matter how you pronounce it or what you call it, it’s still pretty painful. And if left untreated, a shin splint could potentially form into a tibial stress fracture.
Shin Splint Symptoms
So, how do you know if you’re suffering from a shin splint?
The most prominent symptom is stinging pain in and around your shin, which can range anywhere from mild to severe.
Usually, you’ll feel a gradual leg pain develop while walking, running, or jumping — with the height of the pain occurring toward the end of your physical activity.
Whatever the case, pay attention to this pain.
Typically, there are other symptoms to watch out for, too, that indicate more than just a minor inconvenience.
If you’re experiencing some of the following symptoms, chances are you have shin splints:
- A slight ache or a sharp throbbing pain in the front part of your lower leg around your shin
- Pain or discomfort on the left or right side of your shin bone
- Muscle pain radiating from the shin up toward your knee
- Painful discomfort running along the inner part of your lower leg
- Soreness or tenderness of the inner part of your lower leg
- Tenderness of your shin bone
- The shin is warm or hot to the touch
- Visible (usually mild) swelling in your lower leg
- Dull numbness or weakness in your feet
Who Suffers from Shin Splints?
Just about anyone who is active and puts repeated pressure on their legs can get shin splints.
However, some groups of people have a higher chance of developing the condition.
And that list includes a wide range of people and activities, including some of the following:
- Dancers (especially if they wear improper shoes)
- Athletes who play high-impact sports, like football or hockey
- Athletes who run often, like cross-country runners or soccer players
- Runners who traverse frequently on changing surfaces and levels
- Walkers who march often (like military personnel) or who walk extreme distances
- People who have underlying conditions, like a vitamin D deficiency, flat feet/high arches, or even osteoporosis (weaker bones)
- Individuals who do not wear supportive shoes when exercising
What Causes Shin Splints?
Even if you’re in perfect health and consider yourself athletic and active, shin splints can wreak havoc on just about anyone.
As I noted above, a variety of people can suffer from shin splints for a variety of reasons — some natural and some activity-induced.
At the core of the tibial pain, though, is frequent, repetitive pressure on the shin bone.
Here are a few other factors that can cause the painful formation of shin splints:
- People with flat feet are more susceptible to shin splints because of overpronation when the arches of their feet collapse upon contact with a surface.
- Individuals who exercise without stretching during their warmups or cooldowns do not give their muscles and ligaments sufficient preparation to deal with repeated motions. This is also true for those who start new exercises or routines too quickly and/or accelerate their activity much too quickly.
- People with weaker ankles, hips, and core muscles will force extra pressure on their leg muscles when they make contact with the ground, which can radiate up toward the shins.
- Individuals who wear shoes that don’t fit properly or lack sufficient support are at a higher risk of shin splints as well because their feet cannot appropriately absorb the shock from running.
When to See a Doctor About Shin Splints
As I mentioned earlier, what feels like shin splints can often be the beginning of a much more serious injury, a stress fracture.
Typically, shin splints only cause you pain around your shin and calf while running.
However, if you’re also feeling pain when walking or jumping or if your pain is localized and more intense when you put pressure on one specific point, it’s likely you have a stress fracture instead.
But how will you know if it’s simply time to rest or if it’s time to schedule an appointment with a doctor?
First, if after an intense run or workout, you can see your shins are swollen or can feel they’re hot to the touch — even after you’ve rested your legs — you should consider seeking medical attention.
This is also true if you have iced and rested your legs and the pain persists.
Likewise, if you’re limping after you’ve rested for a while, you should consider seeing a doctor. Most importantly, you definitely should not be running if you’re suffering from a limp. Trying to “play through the pain” will only make matters worse.
If your leg pain worsens as you run and continues to persist in a localized, smaller part of your leg, you likely have a small stress fracture.
On the other hand (or foot), if you have shin splints, the pain will usually cover a broader area and will lessen after you’ve warmed up a bit after some physical activity.
But be very careful here.
Be sure not to dismiss your shin splints. If your pain is caused by a stress fracture, your bones will never have an opportunity to heal and repair themselves.
And pain begets pain here. If you continue to train and run with a stress fracture, you are at a much higher risk of getting more stress fractures.
Ultimately, before you proceed with any of the following advice, you may need to visit a physician. Or, if you’ve followed these tips but still suffer shin splint pains, it’s probably time to schedule an appointment with your doctor.
How Do You Treat Shin Splints?
Shin splints will typically go away after some good old fashioned rest-and-relaxation.
Even a momentary pause in action can decrease your immediate pain.
However, if you pause and then restart your activity, you might find that the pain actually increases.
That’s why simply taking a break often isn’t enough to effectively cure shin splints.
Instead, if you want to speed up the recovery process, follow these five helpful tips:
1. Get Some Rest
The last thing you want to do when you get shin splints is to try to ignore them and just run through the pain.
In this particular situation, “no pain, no gain” is only going to make matters much, much worse.
What you should be doing right now is getting some much-needed rest so that your body can properly heal.
So, take it easy right now.
But not too easy.
Don’t take a period of total rest, as doing so may weaken your body’s tissues and surrounding muscle strength needed for ultimate rehabilitation.
Of course, if you’ve noticed pain in your calves or shins from a specific activity, discontinue that altogether.
Your goal, after all, is to offload your injured area, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop building your strength, as that can help with facilitating the repair process.
Simply avoid any workouts that cause pain, as pushing yourself too hard will only make your injury worse or extend your recovery time. You can continue to work on other exercise strategies to maintain fitness, but adjust your regular routine to something much less intense.
2. Ice Your Shin
Ice your shin to ease pain and swelling.
Essentially, periodic icing over the course of 2 or 3 days may be required before the pain subsides. Plan to do it for 20-30 minutes (or until your leg is numb) every 3 to 4 hours.
To avoid giving yourself frostbite, use a cloth as a barrier between your skin and the ice, taking special care to move the ice around so that it does not sit on one part of the skin for too long.
And while you may be tempted to apply heat, don’t. Heat doesn’t actually help reduce inflammation.
3. Elevate Your Shin
While you’re icing your shins or sitting for a longer period, you can also prop up your leg on a pillow or chair.
It doesn’t really matter if you’re sitting or lying down, but I recommend that you elevate your lower leg above your heart level.
Doing so, especially while lying down, uses gravity to help reduce swelling and inflammation.
Start this elevation process in the first few days, and keep doing it while you sleep for one or two nights.
4. Wear a Compression Sleeve
You can also try wearing any variety of a calf compression sleeve to help reduce inflammation around your shins and speed up recovery time.
It’s good to have one of these handy (even before you’ve hurt yourself), as compression sleeves will help control swelling in the first few days.
In general, though, sleeves help increase oxygen and blood flow. This boost in circulation will improve your muscle endurance and efficiency.
Compression sleeves also provide some pretty good pain relief, but you can pick up a pair to run in even if you don’t have shin splints.
Just be sure not to wrap too tightly, as doing so can cut off circulation to your tissue.If at any point you feel numbness or tingling around the wrap, loosen it.
5. Try Anti-Inflammatory Medication
If you feel like resting, icing, compressing, and elevating aren’t doing the trick, consider taking anti-inflammatory painkillers.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, will help reduce swelling, and, perhaps most importantly, will lessen your pain.
That said, as is the case with any medication, these drugs can have side effects, such as a greater chance of bleeding and ulcers. If you are not sure how long it’s healthy to take NSAIDs on a regular basis, ask your doctor or trainer.
Otherwise, use these drugs as directed on the label, unless your doctor instructs otherwise.
How Long Do Shin Splints Last?
There’s no specific recovery timeline for shin splints.
However, if you follow the above advice – especially the whole “getting lots of rest” part – you can speed up the process.
In general, with that extra rest and temporary break from running, you can expect for shin splints to disappear within a week or two.
After that, once you’re ready to hit the running track again, just don’t return at full speed. Starting at a low intensity and gradually building back up to your routine will help you avoid a sudden return visit from shin splints.
How Do You Prevent Shin Splints?
No one body type or athlete is exempt from shin splints.
I’ve already talked about the types of athletes who are most likely to suffer from them, but the truth is that no one needs to go through this painful predicament.
All you need to do is practice these seven proven strategies to prevent shin splints and you should have no problem regularly enjoying your favorite athletic endeavors.
1. Add New Workouts to Your Routine
By strengthening your feet, calves, ankles, heels, and hips, you lessen your chances of having to deal with shin splints. Rehabilitating shin splints is never fun, so the more preventative exercises you can do, the better.
Here are a few exercises to help build that strength:
- Toe Curls: This one’s pretty low-maintenance and easy to do anywhere around the house. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and place one foot on a towel. Using all of the toes (even the pinky toe), grab onto some of the towel and slowly pull it toward you. Then, return to your starting point. Do 10-15 reps on one foot, and then repeat with the other.
- Monster Walk: Grab a resistance band. Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and place the resistance band around your thighs (or ankles). Bend your knees at about a 120-degree angle, keep your head and chest up, and make sure your knees stay behind your toes. Get into a half squat stance and push your knees out as far as they will go. Step forward with the left foot, then the right foot. Then, take a step to the left with your left foot and next with your right foot. Do this for about 12 times backwards and repeat 12 times forwards.
- Heel Drop: Find some sort of step or raised surface. With this exercise, you will feel a stretch in your hips, quads, and calves. Start in a standing position with the balls of your feet on a step, your heels off the step, and your legs straight. Let your heels drop, paying attention to the movement in your ankles. Once you’ve reached the bottom of the position, return to the start. Complete 10 to 15 reps, and then repeat with your other leg.
- Single-Legged Bridge: You’ll be on the floor for this one, so grab a mat if you have one. Lie flat on your back (keep your feet flat on the floor, but make sure your legs stay bent). Create a bridge with your body by extending the right leg straight out so that knees are in line. Try to hold for a minute by squeezing your glutes. Use your left hamstring to lift your hips off the floor. Do this for 10 to 15 reps. Repeat with the left leg.
- Point and Flex: Start by standing with your hands on your hips. Shift your weight to your left leg as you lift your right leg straight out in front of you. Flex your toes toward your shin. Then, reverse and point your toes away from your shin. Once toward and once away is one rep. Do 10 to 15 reps, and then then repeat with the other leg.
Toe Walk: Start by standing with your feet together and both arms at your sides. Rise up onto your toes. Take a step with your right foot, landing first on your heel, then rolling onto midfoot, and finally through to the toes. Then, lift back up onto your toes as you step with your left foot. Take about 10 to 15 “rolling” steps. Then, turn around and repeat back to start.
2. Try a Different Pair of Shoes
Depending on how frequently you run and on what surface you’re running, you may need to change out your running shoes.
Some runners suggest having two pairs of shoes and alternating wearing each pair to vary the stress on their legs.
Your foot naturally collapses to help your body absorb the shock of impact, so if you’re someone who overpronates, you may develop pain and discomfort over time in your ankles, Achilles tendons, outside knee, outer hip, arches, heel, and yes, even shins.
To prevent injuries to these body parts, you should, at the very least, try switching to a shoe that limits pronation (how much the arch of your foot collapses on impact and how much your ankle rolls inward during your run).
You might even consider adding an arch support to your shoe, depending on what kind of runner you are.
Either way, do your research and read reviews. Runner’s World’s recent list of shoes for people who could use some extra support is a great place to start.
3. Get More Calcium and Vitamin D
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is about balance.
As you focus on stretching and working out to enhance your muscle and body functions, you should also work to maintain a nutritious diet to fuel your body and remain healthy.
Where shin splint prevention is concerned, two factors are extremely important.
Check Your Calcium Levels
Because calcium plays such an important role in bone health, runners should monitor their calcium levels. If you do not have enough calcium in your system, your body will pull from your bones to make up for the loss.
As a runner, this leaves you vulnerable to injuries like shin splints and stress fractures and can even make it more difficult for your bones to heal after an injury.
On average, adults need about 1000mg per day of calcium, but adults over 50 should get about 1200mg per day. If your levels are low, increase your intake. If you are a woman with a family history of osteoporosis, definitely pay close attention to your results.
And if you’re lactose intolerant and cannot handle dairy products, you can also eat greens, beans, grains, and some fruits.
Monitor Your Vitamin D Intake, Too
You should also check your vitamin D levels, as it helps your body absorb calcium. Generally provided by sunlight, vitamin D deficiency can be caused by poor weather, sunscreen, and other factors that make it difficult for the body to absorb vitamin D.
As is the case with calcium, keep in mind that too much vitamin D can also have adverse health effects, so it’s best to work with your doctor on deciding how much you should take. For most healthy adults, 2,000 IUs of vitamin D is enough, but you may benefit from taking even more.
4. Adopt the 10% Rule
As you continue to progress as a runner, you’ll notice that you’re able to run harder, faster, and longer than when you started.
It’s great to see that kind of progress and one of the reasons that running is such an addictive pastime.
But if you want to avoid risking injuries (including shin splints), you should run smarter, too.
That means knowing how to plan your runs so you don’t risk injury from pushing your body too hard or too often.
Instead, follow the 10-percent rule: Never increase your total weekly mileage by more than 10%.
Of course, the more experience you have, the more leeway you have with this rule. But use the 10% rule to find your threshold, and then strategize from there.
Staying active and pushing yourself is excellent, but remember that sometimes it’s better to run smarter than harder.
5. Focus on Your Hips and Core
Your hips and core are key contributors to how your feet and legs react to the initial force of contact with the surface you’re running on.
Literally at the center of your running motion is your pelvic core. If your pelvis is misaligned, or even if your hips are too tight, your trunk and legs will not move as efficiently — setting your legs up for sure shin splint formations.
Fortunately, there are some simple exercises to ensure that your hip or core are stable.
For example, you can lie on your back, bend your knees, and lift your hips off the floor. Engage your glutes, and extend one leg, making sure you keep your other side still. Do this for about 10 repetitions for 5-10 seconds.
Work to train and strengthen your hips and core to make you a stronger runner, ultimately improving footstrike and body mechanics, and you’ll find it much easier to avoid developing shin splints.
6. Adjust Your Running Cadence
Paying close attention to your foot strikes and mechanics can pay off considerably to prevent shin splints.
By shortening your running stride and increasing your running cadence, you’ll improve your mechanics so that you put much less force and impact on your feet, shins, and knees.
First, get a baseline of what your cadence actually is. It’s pretty simple: pull out your phone, set the timer for one minute, go for a run, and count your steps on one foot.
Then, adjust your running cadence and try to keep your footstrikes to around 85-90 strikes of one foot per minute.
7. Run on Softer Surfaces
Because shin splints are caused by repetitive, blunt force to your feet and lower leg region, it’s no surprise that the harder the surface you run on, the stronger the force on your body.
Concrete surfaces like sidewalks increase the force that your muscles and bones absorb, and over time, your muscles become fatigued and overused.
To prevent shin splints, try to run on softer surfaces like grass, dirt, sand, or tracks and fields. Doing so will help soften the force and shock on your bones, tendons, joints, and muscles.
Plus, other parts of your body, like your knees and hips, will thank you later.
So Long, Shin Splints
Shin splints can be a nagging issue that goes away after a day. They can also be the kind of recurring problem that follows you long after your run is over.
That’s why it’s important to take as many precautionary steps as possible to strengthen your body before you run the risk of having to deal with shin splints.
And even if you do find yourself a victim to these injuries, take heed of my treatment suggestions.
Don’t let the fear of shin splints keep you from going out and exploring the running world.
Just make sure you stay safe and have fun.