Shin splints while running: Exercises, symptoms and treatment

Shin splints while running are the bane of many beginner runners. The causes of shin splints are numerous.

They are normally associated with runners who do not build up mileage gradually enough or who change their training plan suddenly, increasing their mileage or switching terrain. 

Shin splints is the name for the pain that occurs in the shins or at the front of your lower legs after running or exercise. 

They’re common in people who do a lot of running or other activities that involve repeatedly putting on weight on the legs, such as tennis or basketball. 

They aren’t normally serious, but they can be a very annoying pain and if left untreated, can get slowly worse. 

It’s important not to run through the pain.

If you struggle with shin splint pain, here are some symptoms and treatment for shin splints, as well as some exercises to help prevent them returning in the future.

Symptoms of shin splints

Shin splints are characterised by a pain in the shin bones, which runs down the front of your lower legs. 

The pain tends to begin soon after running or starting exercise. 

The pain may be dull and achy to begin with, but after time can become increasingly sharp or severe, eventually stopping you from exercising. 

It’s important to rest as soon as you start to feel pain because if you try and exercise through the pain, it could eventually become chronic and continue even when you’re resting. 

Some people with shin splints experience swelling and inflammation around the shin bones. 

If this happens, it’s advisable to seek advice from your GP as it could be an underlying sign of a stress fracture.

Causes of shin splints

No one knows what causes shin splints exactly, but there are several things that are thought to cause shin splints.

As discussed above, a sudden change in activity levels can cause the pain or make the pain worse. 

Running on hard or uneven surfaces, as well as running in worn-out trainers that do not support your feet, are thought to be common causes of shin splints.

Tight calf muscles, weak ankles and a tight Achilles tendon are also thought to contribute to shin splint pain. 

Treatment for shin splints

Shin splints can usually be treated at home. The first step is to rest.

Stop running for at least two to three weeks then gradually start to reintroduce running to your normal schedule.

The next step is to hold an ice pack against your shins. A bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel works well too.

Hold the ice pack against your shins for around 10 minutes every few hours for the first few days. This will help with the swelling and inflammation.

In terms of pain relief, over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen can help to relieve the pain.

If you do not want to completely stop all forms of exercise during treatment, then switch to low impact activities like cycling and swimming. 

Yoga is also a good form of cross training for runners as it helps with flexibility – something that runners don’t work on enough! It also doesn’t put too much pressure on your shins. 

You can start returning to running once the pain has gone and the swelling and inflammation has gone down.

Be sure not to increase your activity levels too soon when you return to running. If in doubt, follow a beginner training plan or a training plan suitable for someone returning from injury.

Of course, there’s no one size fits all approach when it comes to training plans. 

The best judge of all is you – your body. If it just doesn’t feel right when you’re running, stop, slow down and take it step by step.

You don’t want to risk the pain coming back again, so go easy on yourself!

Preventing shin splints

There are a number of ways to help prevent shin splints. 

  • Wear running shoes that cushion and support your feet. Visit your local specialist running shoe store and ask for advice on the best shoes for your feet. They will ask you questions to help determine the best type of shoe for you. They may also ask you to do a gait analysis.
  • Run on soft, grassy surfaces where possible. If you’re used to running on hard, concrete like surfaces, try and run on softer surfaces like playing fields where possible.
  • Follow a training plan suitable for your experience and fitness levels. If you’re a beginner runner, the Couch to 5k programme is a great way to start. You can take it in your stride and re do a week if necessary.
  • Cross train. Activities like cycling, swimming and yoga are all great cross training activities for runners. These are all low impact and push your body in different ways.
  • Improve your strength and flexibility. Yoga is a great option for improving flexibility, whilst strength training, such as bodyweight or free weight exercises, can go a long way to make your muscles and joints stronger. 
  • Warm up before each run. I cannot stress this enough! A proper warm up helps to prepare your body for the run ahead by mobilsing your joints and muscles. It’s also a great way to get you in the right frame of mind for your run. The warm up should raise your heart rate but not leave you exhausted before the run. It’s also a good idea to focus on dynamic stretches that stretch out your calves and the front of your legs. 
  • Speak to your GP or a foot specialist. If you’re really struggling with pain, speak to your GP or a local foot specialist (podiatrist). They can help to recommend treatment plans for you, including supportive insoles in your shoes. 

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