Many people turn to running as a way to improve cardiovascular health. They want a physical activity that boosts their heart rate and running delivers. Or they like how they feel after going for a run. It gives them a sense of accomplishment, along with improving their mood.
These benefits are above and beyond the fact that research has found that runners have a 30-45% lower risk of death than non-runners. Yet, all of these perks can easily be dismissed if you experience shin splints when you run.
The term ‘shin splint' is used to refer to pain that occurs along the tibia, also called the shinbone. The tibia is the bone you feel when you run your hand down the front of the lower leg. It extends from the knee to the ankle and bears a lot of the body's weight when standing, walking, or running.
The medical world knows shin splints by their more formal name: medial tibial stress syndrome. Medial shin splints are characterized by inflammation of the soft tissues that surround the tibia. Muscle, tendon, and bone tissue can all become inflamed.
Two muscles of particular interest with splints are the posterior and anterior tibialis. The tibialis anterior muscle sits next to the tibia bone, closer to the outside of the lower leg. The tibialis posterior is on the tibia's backside and located deep behind the calf muscle.
You can experience a shin splint in either leg muscle. Anterior shin splints are often felt on the front of the shinbone. With posterior shin splints, the pain is typically experienced on the back of the shinbone.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) reports that splints are often caused by engaging in repetitive activities. Running is one, with dance being another. Repeating the same movement again and again can overwork leg muscle and bone tissue. The result is lower leg pain.
One might also get splints when changing their exercise program. Increases in running frequency, duration, and intensity all place more stress on the shin area. Changing terrain can also increase shin stress, such as when adding hills or using a higher treadmill incline when running.
The AAOS adds that having a flat foot can contribute to shin splints. So too can wearing shoes that are either wrong for the sport or old and no longer providing adequate support.
Some people try to run through shin splint pain. But the Cleveland Clinic warns that this isn't the best approach. If splints go untreated, they can lead to even more pain via a stress fracture. This means even more time away from the sport you love.
If shin pain is severe or won't go away, medical intervention may be needed. A doctor can help determine whether a stress fracture already exists. They can also rule out other potential causes of shin pain, such as chronic exertional compartment syndrome.
One of the best things runners can do to prevent splint pain is to avoid overtraining. This requires giving the lower leg time to heal between training sessions. It might also involve reducing the training load. Go for shorter runs, stick to flat terrain, or run a bit slower if splints start to occur.
Additionally, make changes to your exercise routine slowly. This enables the shin to get stronger without enduring too much stress. Increase runs a mile at a time. Start on flat ground before working in hills. Get used to running for 30 minutes straight before bumping the time up.
If musculoskeletal issues are causing a splint, seek to correct them. Corrective shin splint exercises work by reducing biomechanical dysfunction. The goal of these exercises is often to either stretch or strengthen the affected area. For instance, the Mayo Clinic indicates that people with flat feet—one of the potential causes of splint pain—may benefit from stretching the Achilles tendon.
Modifying your running technique might help as well. Instead of landing on the heel or forefoot, try to land more toward the middle of the foot. Also, try to relax the shin as much as you can when you run. This can help reduce the stress.
Don't forget to take a look at your running shoes. If they aren't designed to support this activity, it could lead to more splints. Replace them regularly to avoid shin pain. Depending on the shoe, you may be able to log as many as 500 hundred miles before it's time to swap them out.
A good shin stretch can help reduce splints. Here are a few stretches that elongate the shin area:
Anterior tibialis stretch. Sit on the floor, resting the buttocks on the feet. The toes should be pointing in, toward the center of the body. Lean forward and place the hands on the floor, just in front of and outside of the knees. Lean forward more and raise the entire body off the floor so the toes are the only thing touching. Hold for 15 seconds and feel the stretch in the front of the shin.
Sitting shin stretch. Kneel on the floor with the knees apart and ankles just wider than hip-width. Lean your upper body area as far back as you can. If flexible enough, take the butt to the floor so it rests between the feet. Keep the toes pointed toward the wall behind you during the movement to stretch the shin area.
Toe-drag stretch. Stand with knees slightly bent. Pick the right foot up and place it behind you so you are balanced on the toes. Next, curl the right foot so the tops of the toes are resting on the floor. Hold for 15 seconds before switching to the left foot.
Adding a calf stretch or two can help by elongating the posterior tibia muscle. Heel drops are one option to consider. You can also use a foam roller to better stretch the calf area.
A stronger shin area provides better support for the lower leg during exercise. This support is helpful in high-impact exercises such as running or jumping rope. Try these moves to increase shin muscle strength:
Toe raises. While standing, lean back against the wall and lift the toes so they are pointing toward the ceiling. Do one foot at a time or both together. You should feel tension along the shin bone.
Shin pulls. Tie a resistance band around a stationary object, such as a table leg. Sit on the floor and wrap the other end of the band around the upper foot. Use your toes to pull the band toward you.
Calf raises. This exercise helps build the tibialis posterior. Stand on the ground or a step, placing all of the body's weight on the front pad of the feet. Lift the heels off the ground and hold. Increase intensity by doing one foot at a time or by holding a dumbbell while doing the raises.
Exercise can reduce shin pain by stretching or strengthening the muscle that supports the lower leg. However, if splints are due to musculoskeletal dysfunction, engaging in corrective exercise might make better sense. ISSA's Corrective Exercise Specialist certification teaches trainers how to correct some of the most common movement-related dysfunctions, such as those that lead to shin splints.
The ISSA's Corrective Exercise Course will help you learn how to identify and correct the most common movement dysfunctions that you are likely to see in a wide range of clients.